In this time of seeking out escapist fare from our small screen menu, choosing a night’s diversion involves matters of taste and viewer suitability (e.g. are there children and those with tame mainstream sensibilities in the room?). Towards the top of the Netflix heap at the moment is I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the latest head-twisting adventure from director-writer Charlie Kaufman. Be forewarned (or titillated): in American cinema, there is escapism…and then there is the eccentric escapism according to Kaufman., The loveable iconoclast has gotten away with his somehow touching pranks stretching back to Being John Malkovich, followed by a dizzy, mold-busting filmography including Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and as screenwriter of the Spike Jonez-directed Adaptation (which had some shots on location at Earl Warren Showgrounds’ Orchid show, incidentally).
As with Adaptation, in which Kaufman gleefully altered Susan Orlean’s book source, I’m Thinking of Ending Things finds him messing with the very DNA and narrative thread of Iain Reid’s original novel. What we’re left with is a re-imagined world and a wild ride in which the surrealism sneaks up on us, amidst the sly cultural references to Oklahoma!, Wordsworth, Pauline Kael’s righteous rhetoric, pilfered poetry and characters zooming back and forth in time and age.
As for a rational through-line to help explain the enigma, Kaufman’s tale may be one merely bouncing around inside the trouble head of our protagonist Jake (Jess Plemons). On the surface, the film adheres to the genre involving a couple (brilliantly, elastically played by Plemons and newcomer Jessie Buckley) on a road trip to one partner’s parents back home on the farm (Toni Collette and David Thewlis, in suitably dry-comic form). Romantic tension and kindly banter, philosophical asides, hometown nostalgia and late-night perils are encountered along the way.
At one point, Jake confesses to his movie-obsession, speaking for Kaufman himself and so many of us, on various levels: “I suppose I watch too many movies. Fill my brain with lies to pass the time, like the blink of an eye in excruciatingly slow motion.” In another, incidentally relevant Covid-era moment, he asserts that “viruses are monstrous.” Her response: “Everybody wants to live. Viruses are just one more example of everything. Even fake crappy movie ideas want to live. They grow in your brain. That’s what makes them dangerous.”
The story, the road trip, and strange homecoming elements keep the film moving in an ostensibly linear fashion. But sub-surface life—where much of this film’s rich, distinctive personality lives—is what matters most here. As expected in Kaufman’s rabbit hole things take surprising turns, even within a mostly dialogue-based narrative, with dream-like detours from expectations, and Bunuel-esque surrealism tucked into what would otherwise be a thriller format. Of course, Kaufman is toying with us again in this mind-trip flick, but even the existential bleakness chic is partly a ruse. In the end, the hopeful heartland emotionality of Oklahoma! rules, or at least advises.
There is Jake, in knowingly bad aging make-up, onstage at his old high school, filching the maudlin speech from A Beautiful Mind and then singing “Lonely Room,” from Oklahoma!, which may hold a key to his character’s true being. “The sun flicks my eyes,” he sings, balefully, “I’m awake in a lonely room/I ain’t gonna leave her alone soon…/ get me a woman to call my own…” It’s an emotional moment, yet also a bizarre one, begging to be decoded, but also living by its own inscrutable expressive rules.
It’s a shame this film, clearly one of 2020’s best, can’t be seen on a large screen with an audience collectively scratching their heads and being sucked in to the masterfully-designed Kaufman-esque vortex. For now, we’ll have to settle for this feast of escapism consumed in the comforts/discomforts of home.
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