Charlie Kaufman is that rarest of beasts in Hollywood: the writer as auteur.
When we think of films such as “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation.” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” most of us are more likely to associate them with Kaufman than their actual directors (Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, who are no slouches in the auteur stakes themselves). And each of the movies he’s hitherto written and directed – “Synecdoche, New York” and “Anomalisa” – are unquestionably the works of a visionary, a tortured artist with a capital, well, T&A.
I love all of Kaufman’s films up to a point – and that point is invariably about three-quarters of the way through, when he opens up the most ginormous can of crazy (on top of what is already a totally out-there concept) and proceeds to hurl it all over the screen in a seeming act of self-sabotage. Think – some very old spoilers coming up here – of Cameron Diaz’s character locked in a cage with her pet monkey in “Being John Malkovich”; Meryl Streep as a homicidal maniac in “Adaptation.”; and pretty much any moment in “Synecdoche, New York” after the death of theater director Philip Seymour Hoffman’s daughter.
I’m very much writing this as a fan of Kaufman’s work, but I’m still waiting for one of his movies to maintain its brilliance throughout (perhaps “Spotless Mind” comes closest), and not leave a nagging sense of frustration at what might have been amid the maelstrom of ideas and existential dread.
The one thing you’re guaranteed in all of his films, though, is moments of genius – and that’s literally the case in his new movie, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (out Friday on Netflix), when a character repeatedly mistakes the name of the genus edition of Trivial Pursuit.
But there are also genuine moments of genius in this film, which must have left the Netflix staffer tasked with coming up with adjectives to describe films pondering their career choice after viewing this particular head-scratcher. (They ultimately went with “cerebral” and “dark,” and for what it’s worth I’d have gone for “melancholic” and “Lynchian.”)
As well as its love of adjectives – my favorite show description to date is “gritty” and “forceful” for “Fauda,” which suggests a moratorium had just been declared on the use of “gripping” and “powerful” – Netflix also famously likes to define its viewers in three ways: “starters” (those who watch two minutes of a film or episode); “watchers” (those who sit through 70 percent of a film or episode); and “completers” (those who watch 90 percent of a film or episode).
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I also like to think it has a name for anyone who sits through an entire film or episode, including all the post-credits dubbing details for untold countries, but suspect this may be unprintable in a family publication.
What happened tonight?
You don’t need to be Nostradamus to foresee that “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (henceforth “ITOET”) will have lots of starters but not so many completers – which is a shame because, even allowing for its wild idiosyncrasies, at its best this is a haunting movie blessed with a fantastic central performance by Jessie Buckley.
When you consider that two of this Irish actress’ most recent roles were as poor, ill-fated Lyudmilla in “Chernobyl” and a wannabe Scottish country and western singer in “Wild Rose,” the word we’re looking at here is “range.”
Whenever Buckley is on the screen (which, thankfully, is a lot), “ITOET” is engrossing – even if you’re not entirely sure what you’re watching. At one point, her character – the enigmatically titled “Young Woman” – thinks to herself, “I feel uncertain about a lot of what happened tonight,” and you will doubtless nod in sympathy.
This is equal parts fever dream, an episode of “The Twilight Zone” directed by David Lynch, and a lengthy meditation on love, death and loneliness. And yes, I am aware that I could be describing pretty much any Charlie Kaufman movie here but, trust me, it would be easier to synopsize “Ulysses” than sum up the entire plot of his latest work.
It’s based on a 2016 novel of the same name by Iain Reid, and it’s easy to see what attracted Kaufman to the project. The book features philosophical longueurs and a literary sleight-of-hand, and these are seamlessly adapted for the screen by Kaufman in his own unique fashion.
At least a third of the movie’s running time is spent in a car, listening to the internal monologue and conversations of Buckley’s “young woman.” She’s thinking about ending things with her relatively new boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons), as he drives them through a snowstorm to meet his aging parents on a remote farm – and that’s when things start to get really weird.
Buckley’s frequent voiceovers – Kaufman clearly learned nothing from Robert McKee’s admonishment in “Adaptation.” about this being “flaccid, sloppy writing” – is mesmerizing, whether she’s ruminating on life (“Other animals live in the present. Humans cannot, so invented hope”) or reciting Pauline Kael’s review of John Cassavetes’ “A Woman of No Importance” in its entirety. You’re going to have to trust me on that whole mesmerizing thing.
But the film also has time for some kooky cameos from David Thewlis (“Billy Crystal is a nancy” is his curt review of the 1995 romantic comedy “Forget Paris”) and Toni Collette (mixer-upper of “genus”/”genius”) as Jake’s parents on a farm that is complete with creepy basement and even creepier goings-on upstairs.
I wouldn’t call “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” a horror movie – there are no genuine scares here, with the film instead establishing a nicely unsettling tone throughout. But it does increasingly recall “The Shining,” especially toward the denouement (relax, Kaufman doesn’t write himself into proceedings with a “Heeeere’s Charlie!” ax-wielding scene). Throw in a beautifully choreographed dance sequence, some showtunes from “Oklahoma!” and a laugh-out-loud funny joke at a very well-known director’s expense, and this is all Peak Kaufman.
Watching it, I was reminded of a line the fictional Charlie Kaufman (played by the perpetually perspiring Nicolas Cage) says in “Adaptation.”: “Writing is a journey into the unknown.” Yet to paraphrase Robert Louis Stevenson, it’s still better to travel than to arrive at the final destination in Kaufman’s films.
I’m clearly a sucker for his work, though, which can never be accused of lacking ambition or scope. On that note, I’ve just bought the audiobook of Kaufman’s debut novel, “Antkind,” which was published in July and features a protagonist called B. Rosenberger Rosenberg, who we are reliably informed is 100 percent not Jewish (Kaufman himself once said he was “raised sort of Jewish but secular, you know; I’m not from a religious family”).
The audiobook’s running time is a staggering 25 hours and 42 minutes, but I’m think of ending things about three-quarters of the way through.
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is on Netflix from Friday September 4.