dir: Charlie Kaufman
I think I used to prefer it when Charlie Kaufman wrote amazing screenplays and other people directed his movies. It’s not a controversial thing to say. I haven’t enjoyed any of the films he’s made as director. I tried getting through Synecdoche, NY, but never managed it, and thus never reviewed it. Anomalisa, the one with the puppets, left me pretty cold.
And I’m Thinking of Ending Things is his latest offering, and another flick that does very little for me. It’s not entirely from the fevered brain that brought us Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Adaptation previously, because it’s based on what I feel must also be a very tedious book by Iain Reid. I will never read the book to find out if I am wrong (apologies to Mr Reid, who I’m sure poured his Canadian heart and soul into his novel).
When this glorious waste of 2 hours and 15 or so minutes starts, a character is sitting in a car pondering in voice over whether she should end the relationship she’s currently in, with the guy, Jake (Jesse Plemons) who happens to be driving the car. They are driving to the farm he grew up on in order to have dinner with his parents.
Wherever they usually live, this is far away, and it’s snowing, heavily. They engage mostly in tedious talk in the car. I cannot emphasise it enough: whenever they’re in the car, their talk is profoundly tedious. They are in the car for most of the film. At one point, she, being Lucy (Jessie Buckley), is goaded into reciting a poem she just wrote, and she does, and it’s about the bleakest thing you’ve ever heard. Jake thinks it’s wonderful, of course. Lucy is such a good poet.
But she also wants to get back tonight in order to start work on her essay about how the rabies virus attaches itself to the ganglia of an infected person. But she’s also a painter. And she also studies gerontology, and quantum physics, and her name changes a lot. People try to call her, and sometimes it’s her, apparently, trying to call herself.
She mostly reverts to thinking in her head about how pointless this trip is, and how Jake’s a nice guy an all, but this isn’t going to work, and she’ll definitely end things soon, and how they should never have gotten together in the first place.
If things weren’t odd enough before, they get even odder at the farm. The parents (Toni Colette and David Thewliss) are not only clearly insane, but they also randomly get younger and older. In the course of the night they’ll live and die and succumb to dementia before reverting back to some recognisable state. It’s never explained as to why a guy like the dad, using the heavy Northern (think Lancashire, Lincolnshire, that kind of accent) that David Thewliss has, ended up in the snowy hellscape that is rural upstate, I dunno, New York? Oklahoma? wherever the fuck they are.
In case I haven’t made it patently clear thus far I did not care for this fucking film, not one bit, but I thought that Toni Collette was fantastic as this super attentive and long suffering mum. The frenetic responses and tortured facial expressions, are, depending on how you’re reading the film, either terrifying or hilarious. The actual lead up to meeting the parents is almost played like the build up in a horror film, but the mundane reality of them is only horrifying if the mundanities of life and death are horrifying, which I guess they are. These scenes with the elderly versions of the parents did traumatise me a bit, but not because the film is so great at capturing these moments of human existence: it’s solely because of experiences I bring to the table.
Lucy stumbles across Jake’s Childhood Bedroom, which helpfully has a sign on it saying so, and in it she looks at a bunch of stuff which, it has to be said, is the least subtle introduction, or elaboration, on what might really be going on. She finds the exact poem she was delivering in the car earlier in an old book of Jake’s, there’s a Pauline Kael book, renowned film critic in her day, which Lucy (or whatever her name actually is) will be declaiming out loud in the car on the drive home, bellowing at the top of her lungs Kael’s words, word-for-word, on John Cassavettes’ A Woman Under the Influence. There’s the essay collection from David Foster Wallace that Jake will be referring to as well. A copy of A Beautiful Mind, that Ron Howard flick about economist John Nash and his imaginary friends, which plays into the ending of the film here, by surreally using the ending from that film as well.
Is it all starting to come together in some satisfying form for you? Are you getting what bullshit this flick is putting together? Interspersed within all this “weirdness” with a dog that appears and disappears constantly shaking itself, are scenes with an aged janitor who works at the local school who seems to have some link to Jake and Lucy, who watches romantic comedies during his breaks, who whispers to himself, and who doesn’t seem very happy with things, though he’s happy to watch a million versions of Oklahoma! each and every year.
What’s happening is not complicated, and I won’t spoil it further, because, honestly, preventing people from watching this heap of shit really would be some form of tragedy. The question becomes, in a film that was never that enjoyable or interesting in the first place, does the story justify its own existence? I would argue that it does not.
If this film was going to have a hope in hell of being intriguing or at least engaging, I would at least have to enjoy the scenes between Lucy and Jake in the car. Their performances are generally, naturalistically flat except when they’re outright bonkers (like when Lucy spontaneously starts smoking during the Pauline Kael speech, or the Tulsy Town ice cream bullshit, which never makes a lick of sense), and I never cared.
At many points, like I usually do in scenes where characters are in cars, and the driver looks away from the road too long (absolute pet hate of mine in movies, even knowing that they’re not actually driving), I got agitated, but after a while I started actively hoping they would crash, because that way at least something interesting might have happened.
The slow and steady, and fairly inorganic reveal of what’s actually happening doesn’t make for an “a ha!” enjoyable revelation – it kinda meanders on until you realise those characters you couldn’t invest in and didn’t really like never mattered that much anyway. But there’s a ballet re-telling of something that never actually happened but points to the romantic but fatalistic yearnings that linger within an old man’s heart, and then a speech delivered by and to people wearing very obvious ageing make up, and a song from Oklahoma, and then that’s it. Thanks for coming! Please remember to not punch yourself in the head on the way out of the theatre, which is really your lounge room.
I am sure someone somewhere is making the argument that the film is a brilliant distillation of the creative process, about how a person’s myriad of life experiences and influences can come together and create something unique, something archetypal, and that same concept is delivered through a story about a deceptively gentle person living a life of quiet desperation and regret, trying to come to peace with their existence, and, I’m telling you, just because words can go in that order doesn’t mean they should. This is guttingly awful.
It’s not that often that I feel cheated when watching a movie, but, dear reader, this is one of those occasions. I got very little from this experience, and I recommend it to no-one.
4 times the thing they should have thought about ending was this film about an hour earlier than it actually finishes out of 10
“Jake tells me you’re studying quantum psychics at the university.”
- “Physics, mom.”
“Really?” – about the only moment that made me chuckle – I’m Thinking of Ending Things