Many years before he became the most famous niche, surrealist, seriocomic writer-director in Hollywood, Charlie Kaufman got himself stuck in a tight space. A closet, perhaps, or a hole he was too little to crawl out of. Wherever it was, he was trapped there for a long time, or at least long enough to spark a lifelong obsession with tight spaces. Okay, fine, I have zero evidence for this theory. But I’ve watched Kaufman’s movies, and his movies don’t lie. How else to explain all the menacing little rooms therein — the seventh-and-a-half floor in “Being John Malkovich,” the crumbling beach house in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” the cell-like hotel rooms in “Anomalisa?” More than any filmography I can think of, Kaufman’s work calls out for a diagnosis; claustrophobia would be a good start.
But just a start. I know art and life aren’t the same, but if there’s any link between the two, claustrophobia would appear to be the least of Kaufman’s problems. His protagonists — most of them frustrated artists of some kind or other, one of them a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman — have the same unscratchable itch. A gray, indifferent world pushes down on them, while the things that are supposed to make life tolerable, like love or family or creativity, are nowhere to be found. Sometimes, there’s an explanation for all this misery. But more often, no diagnosis — or cure — is possible. When Michael Stone, the sad-sack Malcolm Gladwell at the center of “Anomalisa,” says “I’ve lost my love,” I wondered, “What love?”
Kaufman’s latest film, his third as a director, toggles between misery and mere claustrophobia. That it is also very, very funny is less of a contradiction than it may appear. The two leads, a young man named Jake and his girlfriend, who I’m going to call Lucy even though her name changes every couple of minutes, spend a good chunk of the film driving through a snowstorm. They’ve only been going out for a few weeks and are still a little shy around each other, a fact that’s echoed in the boxy 4:3 aspect ratio — we sense that this road trip is too intimate too soon, that everything’s happening a notch too fast. Their conversation, if you can call it that, is as squished as the frame, an aria of ums and pauses and stutters. It’s the rare comic setpiece that deserves to be called hysterical; most of the time we’re chortling just to let off the tension. After a whole film like this, the final shot — of a snow-smothered car, quite possibly containing a corpse — is practically Nirvana. The film is called “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.”
Dialogue, for Kaufman, has always been a game of inches; this time around, he’s in excellent hands. Jesse Plemons, best known for his roles in “Friday Night Lights,” “Breaking Bad” and a bunch of blah prestige pictures, plays Jake as a kind of honorary adult, always on the verge of regressing to boyhood. Every time he speaks, it’s like he’s using his voice for the first time; even when he blinks, he lumbers. His screen partner and foil, the Irish actress Jessie Buckley, gives a performance of such unstrained subtlety that it took me two full viewings to appreciate the trick she’d pulled off. Seemingly the narrator of her own story, Lucy turns out to be something rather less, or more: a smear of old memories, not so far from Kate Winslet’s part in “Eternal Sunshine.” That Lucy seems as specific as she does (blithe, angsty, at once too good for Jake and hungry for his approval) is to Buckley’s enormous credit, and Plemons’s. For the first third of the film, they scratch against each other until their characterizations are stiletto-sharp. And then, little by little, almost second by second, things fall apart: first the lovebirds’ relationship, then the plot, then the lovebirds themselves.
Jake and Lucy have driven to the middle of nowhere to visit Jake’s mother and father, played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis and credited simply as Mother and Father. Collette is a decade younger than her screen spouse, and not all that much older than Plemons — but age confusion is very much the point. Thewlis, still in his fifties, plays a man of at least an extra quarter-century. One of the best physical performers we’ve got, he gives Father a rich vocabulary of squints and head-cocks, the kinds of nervous ticks sometimes mistaken for signs of intelligence. As Mother, Collette is more one-note — you suspect a bomb will go off if she stops smiling for even a second. Over the course of the evening, she ages a couple decades, until she can barely sit up in bed (in other words, she’s in a Charlie Kaufman movie).
It’s creepy, but since Jake and Lucy seem vaguely creeped out by almost everything, they can only wince and stare into space and wait for it to be over. Their drive home feels more disjointed than anything in the film so far, as if they’re succumbing to some nasty neurological disease caught from Jake’s parents. They have long, fruitless talks about David Foster Wallace, Emerson, Wordsworth, and so on. They become different people, hiccupping from one backstory to another: Lucy’s a waitress, then a landscape painter, then a quantum physicist, then a poet, then a combination of Pauline Kael and Gena Rowlands who recites Kael’s pan of Rowlands’s performance in “A Woman Under the Influence.” “We often can’t tell whether the characters are meant to be unconscious of what they’re doing,” Kaufman has Lucy say, “or whether it’s Cassavetes who’s unconscious.” You could say much the same thing about “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” of course, and Kaufman knows this (of course).
It’s this kind of wink that makes Kaufman’s work fun to watch and hard to write about. The symbols, the dashes of Freud, the blatant autobiography, the movie posters and English 101 readings lingered on just long enough for viewers to notice the titles — together, they almost do my job for me, making me feel even more irrelevant than I usually do when I review movies. In most of Kaufman’s works, the breadcrumbs are scattered so wide and thick it’s unclear where, if anywhere, they actually lead — as if he’s daring us to follow his idiot symbolism all the way to the middle of nowhere — “idiot symbolism” being a quote from that Kael review. Love Kaufman or hate him, you have to admire the way he hedges his bets. He already knows everything critics are going to say against “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” and he’s put it all in the mouth of Lucy-as-Kael-as-Rowlands. “Think my movie’s weird and shapeless?” he seems to ask. “That’s just what Pauline said about Cassavetes — and look how wrong she turned out to be!”
Self-awareness is a fine alibi, but it’s no acquittal. And by bringing up Cassavetes, Wallace and Wordsworth, Kaufman invites a comparison that few if any living artists could withstand. This time around, at least, there seems to be a common thread to these allusions. From Emerson’s transparent eyeball to Wallace’s paranoid stoner, from Wordsworth’s recluse to Anna Kavan’s postapocalyptic dreamer, Kaufman is riffing on the theme of solipsism — unsurprising, because solipsism has been the theme of his entire career. Again and again, he’s posed the same philosophical questions: How do we know our world is real? How can we know what other people are thinking? And if we don’t, is it possible to form connections with other human beings? Is there any such thing as “we,” really?
Important matters, to be sure, and well worth wondering about over multiple films. But as Kaufman has gone from Young Turk to elder statesman, his premises have hardened into dogmas. It’s as if he’s grown so accustomed to making movies about empty, lonely little worlds that he assumes we’re always eager to go there with him.
A middle-class white manchild falls in love with a quirky woman who is both real and a projection of his fantasies, a cure for and a symptom of his crushing isolation. It’s the plot of hundreds of movies made in the last 30-odd years: “Elizabethtown,” “Garden State,” “Scott Pilgrim Versus the World” and plenty of others I remember with wistful embarrassment. “Eternal Sunshine” bears the same relationship to these that a three-Michelin-star Wagyu hamburger bears to the Big Mac — classier, tastier, but still basically the same dish. The film has plenty of bitterness, but with enough mid-aughts indie sweetness to add up to a faint optimism. It is also, not coincidentally, the most popular movie Charlie Kaufman has yet written — the only one that’s beloved, as opposed to respected.
Kaufman did not direct “Eternal Sunshine” (that’d be Michel Gondry). The three features he has directed — “Synecdoche, New York,” “Anomalisa” and now “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (the man’s incapable of coming up with a dull title) — are pretty damn far from loveable, but they’re not trying to be. “Eternal Sunshine” lets down the solipsistic wall for a few happy scenes, but Kaufman’s follow-ups never do — his lonely, white manchildren stay lonely until the bitter end. The only moments in these films that might be called warmly interpersonal are over-ironized until they’ve gone cold (consider puppet-Jennifer Jason Leigh belting “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” in “Anomalisa,” seconds before puppet-David Thewlis cleans her carpet). “Unsentimental” doesn’t do it justice. Kaufman is anti-sentimental, pushing his love-starved characters together only to tear them away from each other.
There’s plenty to be said for this approach. For one, it’s helped Kaufman steer clear of sentimental schlock like “Her,” written and directed by his frequent collaborator Spike Jonze. “Synecdoche, New York” looks wiser with each passing year — a portrait of the artist as an old curmudgeon, disguised as an SF shaggy dog story. The downside of Kaufman’s anti-sentimentalism is that it can be as unmotivated, inattentive to nuance, and, in its own way, predictable as a Hollywood happily-ever-after. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is the only Kaufman movie I can think of without a single moment of warmth, not even a fleeting, ironic one. Right away, Jake and Lucy’s relationship seems to be in a nosedive, and nothing we’re shown in the next 134 minutes leads us to think otherwise. There’s a stale, tautological flavor to all this: isolated, anxious people are shown to be — wouldn’t you know it! — isolated and anxious. Right away, we sense we’re trapped in somebody’s head. The only surprise is whose.
Here’s the paradox of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”: it’s not even close to Kaufman’s best film, and (not “but”) Kaufman’s storytelling talents have never shone brighter. He keeps things moving along, as only a former TV sketch comedy writer can — and the fact that he gets as far as he does with such a grubby little premise is kind of a miracle. “Comedy sketches are harder than anything,” Stephen Colbert recently said, remembering his time on The Dana Carvey Show, which Kaufman co-wrote. “Every single one’s got a beginning, middle and end. But then it’s over in, like, three to eight minutes, and then you have to do another.” This, I would guess, is a pretty fair description of what it was like to write “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.” It’s chock-full of goofy characters and flashy set pieces, but each one sinks without a trace—and then, it’s on to the next thing. When the film is at its most inspired, it basically is sketch comedy: lo-fi, high-IQ send-ups of American pop culture, one after another. While I have no idea what the rest of 2020 holds, I doubt I’ll watch another movie that makes me cackle the way this one did when it spoofed the ending of “A Beautiful Mind.”
But the more I cackled at “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” the sourer the aftertaste grew. Kaufman hasn’t made any concessions to conventional wisdom, but his latest is still decidedly a movie of the moment — which is to say, it’s about how we’re all screwed, the end is nigh, and in the meantime we’re just bit-players in each other’s movies. And yes, he could be right. Then again, Wordsworth, Emerson, and Cassavetes lived through their share of apocalyptic dread, too, and managed not to surrender to despair. So what’s Kaufman’s excuse for giving in? Global warming? Capitalism? The patriarchy? Trump? All of the above? Maybe, or maybe it’s just easier to play virtuosic riffs on the same lackluster theme. Maybe only thing holding Kaufman back is Kaufman himself. His solipsism dies a lovelier death with each passing year.