Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Despair, comedy and Charlie Kaufman

     Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York (2008) baffled many, but it had real pain, insight, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as a theater director obsessed with creating a masterpiece. Kaufman's new film, I'm Thinking of Ending Things, displays some of the same existential fatigue that marked Synecdoche. Ditto for the director's 2015 animated feature, Anamolisa.  
    I mention the past to point out that Kaufman knows his way around misery and because he's at it again.
     Some movies never allow a theme to emerge from the slagheap of their narratives. That can't be said of I'm Thinking About Ending Things: This odd, sometimes haunting, sometimes funny, sometimes baffling movie allows many themes to marinate in its dreary brine.
     Among them: mortality, aging, relationships, and the malleability of time. 
     All of this unfolds in a deadpan style that mirrors the internal state of characters who, as the title suggests, are living lives in which happiness and contentment seem as inaccessible as far-off galaxies.
     The aroma of defeat wafts through nearly everything in I'm Thinking of Ending Things, much of which is staged in a car in which two people (Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons) travel through a snowstorm. The car's windshield wipers become a kind of metronome, marking the passing of each gray minute.
     Although it's barely relevant, I'm Thinking of Ending Things does have a plot. Buckley's character -- sometimes called Lucia and sometimes called Lucy -- accompanies Plemons' Jake on a trip to meet Jake's parents, who live on an isolated farm. 
     Even before they arrive at their destination, Lucy wonders why she's wasting her time on a relationship she's sure has no future. Jake is nice. Jake is intelligent. But he's not The One.
     As played by Plemons,  we’re ready to agree with Lucy’s assessment. Jake seems to have accepted the monotony of life on an even keel.
     Both characters are smart, though, and they're not shy about telling each other what they know.
     When Lucy and Jake arrive at the farmhouse, the movie begins its full ascent into weirdness, becoming what might be considered a comedy of despair.   
     Watching Lucy encounter Jake's mother (Toni Collette) and her father (a very strange David Thewlis) leads to the kind of deadpan humor that won't appeal to everyone but which made me laugh.
    Even before this, signs of weirdness emerge: We're talking dead frozen sheep, a story about pigs that were eaten by maggots and, other suggestions that unspeakable horror lurks in the farm's rural isolation.
    At his point, the movie -- which is based on a novel by Iain Reid -- seems as if it might be springing from Lucy's mind as she imagines what life with David (and the inevitable association with his parents) might be like: Grimly comic images pervade a howling snowstorm as Lucy sees Jake’s parents in more youthful stages and in their decrepitude.
    Eventually, Jake and Lucy return to the road. Although the snow has worsened, Jake insists on stopping for ice cream at Tulsey Town, a stand that's inexplicably open in the middle of nowhere in the middle of a blizzard. 
     The ride also includes a discussion of  John Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence with Lucy offering a strident takedown of the movie, which some will recognize as Pauline Kael's review of the movie with its particular concentration on the work of actress Gena Rowlands. 
     Is this parody? Is it a dig at reviewers? Is it a comment on the way opinion tends to be absorbed and regurgitated in ways that obliterate individual obligations to respond?
     The evening culminates when Jake decides that he wants to show Lucy his high school, a place where we've already seen images of a janitor mopping up the hallways, watching TV (a movie supposedly directed by Robert Zemeckis), and snippets from a student production of Oklahoma.
     Jake, by the way, is a fan of musicals and these final scenes include a lovely dance duet and a further blurring of identities. Is Jake the janitor at a different stage of his life?
       Throughout all of this, Kaufman insists on giving his movie a feeling in which strangeness has become ordinary; weirdness absent any shimmering sense of mystery.
        What to think? I found myself digesting the movie in pieces. Yes to this bit. No to that. Unsure about something else.  
       I'll get back to you on the way the movie seems to invite interpretation but does little to confirm whatever meaning (or meanings) we might wish to read into it.
       In its overall impact, I'm Thinking of Ending Things accumulates around us like steadily falling snow, leaving drifts of recollected moments from which we must dig ourselves out.
      Good luck and see you when the weather clears.

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