There is something immediately familiar about Charlie Kaufman’s new movie, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, namely a sad man dressed in drab colors dating a chipper if not possibly loopy woman in a brightly striped knit sweater. It’s so very Eternal Sunshine, one must assume a fabric-conscious beauty once broke a young Mr. Kaufman’s heart such that even now, when adapting another’s book for the screen, he can’t help but draw on it.
Kaufman draws on more than that in his adaptation of Iain Reid’s 2016 novel, adding many personal touches—one might even say obsessions—into his film version. If you plan to watch it, I hope, for example, that you’re intimately knowledgeable of the musical Oklahoma! It’ll help.
But hey! Who wants an exact translation of book to film? Kaufman does what any wise filmmaker should do; he stays true to his movie rather than his source material. From what I understand of the book, having not read it, he more or less tells the same story, albeit making its central conceit more of a mystery waiting to be solved than the foregone conclusion it is in the book. But that’s getting into spoiler territory I’ll save for the end of these thoughts on thinking about things.
Thinking about movies… Who has time to think about movies anymore? I’m too busy cowering in my house not breathing the smoke billowing outside to think about much of anything these days, let alone type them into coherent sentences. The whole world’s on fire, in more ways than one. Thinking hurts my brain.
So thanks a lot, Kaufman. You’ve got a lot of nerve forcing me not only to watch your movie, but to think about the damn thing too. And think about it one must, for Kaufman has made another cinematic puzzle, as is his wont, another long-winded one at that. If you thought Synecdoche, New York felt long, be warned—this one’s a half hour longer.
In fact I had much the same reaction to I’m Thinking of Ending Things as I did to Synecdoche, New York (when I rewatched it not too long ago). After it had gone on for what felt like quite a long time I thought, say, odd and slowish and sad yet funny as this is, it’s kind of great, too. Gee, must be almost over, though, let’s see how much longer it—Another hour and twenty minutes?! That’s a whole other movie! What the—?!
Both movies sort of creep to a “huh” of a finish. In the case of Ending Things, what we might as well call the twist isn’t especially satisfying. It’s more of a slowly dawning realization (or not, if you catch on quickly) that leaves one with a bit of a shrug. Oh, so that’s—? And he’s—? And she was just—? Oh, well, okay then. The talking pig helps and all, but still. A more pizazzful ending might have made getting there feel more worth the wait.
The movie opens with sad man Jake (Jesse Plemons) picking up his brightly attired girlfriend of six weeks, Lucy (Jessie Buckley), on a street corner and driving her to meet his parents, somewhere in Oklahoma. Actually it opens with an old man peeking out a dark apartment window at the street below as Lucy narrates her thoughts about ending things, “things” being her relationship with Jake, only once Jake picks her up and we go back to the apartment the old man, though shadowy, his back to us, looks younger and rather a lot like Jake, but we only see him for a second, and we have no idea what this movie is about, so off we go for a long drive.
And for real, it is a long long drive. I was equally impressed and exasperated with how long this scene runs. Impressed by Kaufman’s ability to keep it interesting at such length, and exasperated because it just keeps on going to the point I began to wonder if this was the whole movie.
It is not the whole movie. They eventually arrive at Jake’s parents’ house, played with loopy gusto by Toni Collette and David Thewlis (his parents, that is, not the house), and it’s here where things get weird enough that one begins to wonder just what the heck is going on with this movie.
Adding to one’s wondering are the occasional cuts to an old janitor at a high school going about his janitorial business. What’s he got to do with anything? Was he the old man in the apartment? Why does he like watching high school kids perform Oklahoma! as much as Jake likes talking about it?
Well. The clues pile up, what with Jake’s parents appearing younger and older and Lucy, whose name changes as often as her job, her personality, and the stripes on her sweater, unable to leave no matter how urgently she wants to go, in a perfectly horribly frustrating dream-like manner.
When at last she and Jake do leave, we’re back to another outrageously long driving scene, one where Lucy becomes both Pauline Kael and a woman in a movie Jake is apparently familiar with that we earlier saw the janitor watching, a dopey romantic comedy a title card tells us was directed by Robert Zemeckis. I laughed.
After a weird trip to fetch giant ice cream drinks from irritating/creepy high school girls in the middle of a snowstorm, Jake and Lucy end up at Jake’s old high school, dancers take over their roles, Lucy vanishes from the movie, and we’re all forced to sit through the ending of A Beautiful Mind. Lastly, there’s the talking pig.
One could be forgiven for walking away from this movie in a state of permanent head-scratching irritation. Nevertheless, much of what precedes the ending is weird and funny and wonderful, even if it’s simultaneously exasperating, and if you like movies that aren’t like the other movies, you would be wise to watch it.
Which brings us to:
THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF SPOILERS
You have been warned.
Experientially, I found Lucy’s disappearance toward the end of the movie a big let-down. The movie kind of died for me. I’m not prone to solving movie-puzzles while they’re happening, preferring to go along for the ride so long as the ride keeps me engaged, so I wasn’t aware that Lucy was purely imaginary until it was over and I thought about what I’d just watched. At which point, sure, of course she vanishes, of course we’re left with the character who dreamed her up, of course it was old janitor Jake’s story all along…
But Jake is boring as fuck. I didn’t give a damn for him. I liked a lot of the movie while it was happening, but by the end? I didn’t care.
What this feels like is the kind of movie you’re supposed to read up on after it’s over, and while I like a movie that makes me think, requiring me to review the plot of Oklahoma! (to understand the dance sequence) and remember a movie as unmemorable as A Beautiful Mind (the speech at the end of which fakey-old Jake recites verbatim) to “get” what I just saw is simply lazy. If your movie doesn’t work without a study-guide, it may need a rethink.
Plus there’s Lucy spouting verbatim Pauline Kael, another reference I can’t imagine too many viewers are going to recognize by syntax alone (god help me, I’ve read enough Kael to have caught on instantly), and the poem Lucy recites at the film’s outset. I may be forgetting others.
What’s missing from I’m Thinking of Ending Things is anything allowing us to get inside Jake’s head, which is a curious thing to say, given that Jake’s head is where the whole movie is set. But maybe that’s exactly the problem. Because the whole thing is Jake’s fantasy, because we’re seeing nothing but what’s inside Jake’s head, it may never have occurred to Kaufman that Jake himself needed to be fleshed out inside his own fantasy. His fleshing out, in other words, would take care of itself by virtue of the film’s conceit, one imagines Kaufman presuming.
Thus we’re left with a blank slate of a central character, an old man who led a sad life, who never talked to the pretty girl at the pub quiz, who’s thinking about ending things, sure, but in the suicidal sense, whereas the character whose story we’re led to believe this is, who like us is caught up in this weird world with this boring turd and his insane parents in the middle of a snowstorm with no means of escape, turns out not to exist. Kaufman, then, has conned us.
Good thing it’s funny while it’s happening.