I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)

It took me a long time to learn that it’s unnecessary to force yourself to care about every movie & filmmaker that’re widely deemed Important. What I’m working on learning now is that it’s also unnecessary to broadcast the fact that you don’t care; it’s okay to just stay out of the conversation when they come up. It turns out that second lesson is much more difficult, which is why I’m reviewing a Charlie Kaufman movie even though he’s not really My Thing. After finding both Synecdoche, New York and Anomalisa incredibly frustrating (even if formally interesting), I should have known better than to indulge Kaufman’s latest 135-minute mind-flattener, I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Every one of his pretentious meta-crises has ecstatic defenders who find them to be the height of postmodern screenwriting and zealous buzzkills who find them to be morally repugnant drivel. By now it’s crystal clear that I’m not among either camp. Even just a few days after I’m Thinking of Ending Things premiered on Netflix, there’s already a sea of lengthy tomes praising its genius or its decrying its crimes against pop entertainment (or, more relatably, against the inner lives of women), but all I can really muster is a half-hearted “Meh.” I think that means it’s time to walk away from discussing this particular filmmaker, possibly forever.

To be totally honest, I already knew it was time to walk away. I was going to skip this film entirely until I read that Jessie Buckley (who still hasn’t earned sufficient accolades for her work in Beast) was starring in a trippy meta-horror about a psychological break with reality. That sounds like My Thing. I was on the hook for what I’m Thinking of Ending Things was up to for at least its first hour, wherein Buckley suffers a miserable, real-time road trip in a snowstorm to meet her boyfriend’s grotesquely annoying parents. The title is a refrain that Buckley repeats on loop in her constant internal monologue (hidden behind her trademark constant smirk), referring both to suicidal ideation and to her desire to break up with her pretentious asshole boyfriend (Jesse Plemons). Once they reach the horrifically awkward meet-the-parents dinner, the film shifts into an Exterminating Angel type existential crisis, where there’s no way to back out of the monogamous courtship ritual that led them there and all momentum is leading towards them aging into the same hideously uninteresting husks as the boyfriend’s parents (David Thewlis and Toni Collette). That is, until it stops caring about Buckley’s character entirely and goes all in on the pretentious asshole’s inner life instead – territory that Kaufman has covered all too extensively in his past work.

There’s a lot to admire here, which is always true of Kaufman’s films to some extent and always makes them even more frustrating when considered in totality. I’m Thinking of Ending Things tackles a lot of the universally relatable indignities of romantic courtship & growing old in the most obscure, unrelatable ways possible. It has an chillingly effective way of shifting minor details like wardrobe, set design, and characters’ entire identities to disorient the audience within its nightmarishly Ordinary hellscape, which works in its favor when it’s aiming for a Lynchian horror mood (complete with closed captions that read “[wind howling]” for Twitter-ready screengrabs). I’ll even admit that I was amused by its self-hating pretentiousness at times, especially in its absurdly lengthy allusions to outside texts like poems, musicals, and Pauline Kael movie reviews. Still, as engaging as the film could be intellectually, I just couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm to care about where it was going or what it was saying, especially once it left the hellish parental dinner of the second act.

This film is fine overall, I guess, but I personally got a lot more out of Vivarium‘s amused hatred of aging & monogamous courtship with nearly an hour less investment. It’s probably best that I walk away from the already excessively vast conversation surrounding I’m Thinking of Ending Things without saying more than that. I may not care much about what Charlie Kaufman is up to but, to quote his own screenplay (or maybe the film’s source-material novel), “It’s good to remind yourself that the world is bigger than inside your own head.” Hopefully by the next time he releases one of these self-indulgent meta-provocations I will have learned to leave the conversation to people who actually get something out of them, positive or negative.

-Brandon Ledet

The Supernatural Romantic Tedium of Anomalisa (2015) & Schizopolis (1996)

In our initial discussion of our current Movie of the Month, the irreverently cerebral Steven Soderbergh comedy Schizopolis, I asked Boomer how he felt the film’s tale of adulterous doppelgängers differed from the similar themes in Charlie Kaufman’s recent stop-motion drama Anomalisa. In Schizopolis, Soderbergh & (his real life ex-wife) Betsy Brantley play duel sets of doppelgängers who cheat on each other in existential searches for romantic passion, only to find more of the same in their “new” partners. To me, this “Love the one you’re with” messaging felt wildly different from Anomalisa‘s central conflict, in which a traveling businessman sees the entire world outside himself as one homogeneous personality except for the woman he’s currently cheating on his wife with, until she too is absorbed into the society of milquetoast doppelgängers that populate his life once the initial spark is gone. I asked Boomer for insight on this difference because I knew he’d be better at articulating it than I would. He wrote, “Schizopolis is a film about projection, but in a way that explores the various ways that multiple individuals categorize and compartmentalize their interactions between different people depending upon the intimacy (or lack thereof) of their relationship, the difference in their social classes and the power dynamic thereof, the emotional distance between them, libido, and other factors. Instead of Anomalisa‘s Michael facing the difficulty of seeing every person–strangers, his wife, his ex, his boss–as the same, Fletcher Munson’s interactions vary, demonstrating the dissonance between his words and his thoughts in his conversations with various people.” Those differences in varying social interactions & perspectives truly are essential to what distinguishes Schizopolis from Anomalisa. It still surprises me, though, how significantly the two works overlap in form to achieve their respective goals.

One of the most immediately striking aspects of both Anomalisa and Schizopolis is the crudeness of their visual forms. Shot with no solid script while palling around Baton Rouge, Schizopolis has a strikingly informal look to it, approximating the home movies & sketch comedy hybrid that defined the style of The Kids in the Hall. For its part, Anomalisa adopts the medium of stop-motion animation, which inherently has a kind of imperfect crudeness to its motions. Offsetting the leaps made in the medium by studios like Laika, however, this film intentionally shows the creases in its characters’ faces, calling attention to its own seams & artifice. Both films also dwell on the anonymity of utilitarian spaces & the empty babble of corporate speak. In Anomalisa, Michael’s depression is amplified by the doldrums of occupying a hotel room while away on business, with nothing especially exceptional about his transient spacial surroundings. The Baton Rouge office buildings & suburban homes Fletcher Munson drifts through in Schizopolis are just as unremarkable & devoid of personality. Munson’s job writing nonsensical speeches for the L. Ron Hubbard reminiscent cult leader of Eventualism & author of How to Control Your Own Mind is also reflected in the big speech on optimizing customer service efficiency (or some other empty form of corporate chatter) Michael travels to deliver. For two films about supernatural events in which bored businessmen drift into romantic entanglements with physical copies of their partners, Anomalisa & Schizopolis both make a point to keep their visual pallets anonymously bland & unassuming. They both seek to wring the supernatural out of the mundane, which requires the outlandishness of their premises to be rooted in visual monotony. The differences between their achievements have less to do with their respective visual styles than with how one story takes boredom with the hegemony as a freeing opportunity for irreverence while the other allows that boredom to fester into contempt.

As Boomer wrote in our initial conversation, “The biggest difference between the two films is in the fact that Anomalisa only gives us Michael’s point of view and insight into his particular problems with intimacy, communication, empathy, and humanity. […] Shizopolis gives us the points of view of several people, and highlights how each of them have their own problems with communication, which vary from person to person.” It’s arguable which choice of perspective makes for a more rewarding film, but being stuck in Michael’s head certainly makes Anomalisa the more uncomfortable watch. In Schizopolis, Soderbergh casts himself as a bland everyman. Anomalisa envisions a world where every man is bland. Not only is every character outside Michael’s head boring (and vaguely reminiscent of Michael Ian Black); they’re also an annoying, unremarkable sea of braying idiots with nothing unique to offer the world. I appreciate the bizarre accomplishments of Anomalisa from an emotional distance, but never truly fall in love with the film because it feels as if it should display just as much contempt for its villainous protagonist as he does for the rest of the world. Whether or not his perspective is the symptom of a chemical imbalance, the lack of empathy in Michael’s worldview makes him out to be an elitist monster who’s far more difficult to resonate with than Fletcher Munson’s more recognizably common suburban doldrums. Schizopolis is willing to examine its protagonist’s close-minded selfishness in its third act reversal of perspective that replays scenes through Mrs. Munson’s POV, while Anomalisa just dismisses Michael’s cruel boredom as “psychological problems,” as if they’re something universally experienced. The most perspective we get from Jennifer Jason Leigh as Michael’s titular love interest is a sweetly pathetic rendition of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” which is played more for pity than it is for empathy.

As much as I prefer the deranged silliness of Schizopolis to Anomalisa‘s bitter people-watching, Michael’s climactic speech about customer service optimization does devolve nicely into a kind of dual mission statement for both films. He asks himself (and his audience) “What does it mean to be human? What is it to ache? What is it to be alive?” in existential desperation, only to answer those questions with frantic repetitions of “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.” These films approach that crisis and the oppressive mundanity of modern life from entirely different perspectives. Schizopolis searches for meaning in interpersonal relationships, finding its frustration with the ineffectiveness of language at truly connecting two human souls in a punishingly tedious world that increasingly doesn’t make sense. Anomalisa, by contrast, despairs at the punishing tedium of other people, who are just as uninteresting & personality-free as hotel room furniture. No matter which perspective you find more honest or worthwhile, it’s eerie how much these visually crude doppelgänger narratives overlap in form. Their supernatural romance dramas are rooted in two incomparable philosophies, yet they’re both staged in a common, tedious modern world setting with intentionally limiting means of expression.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the irreverently cerebral Steven Soderbergh comedy Schizopolis, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Anomalisa (2015)

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As is the case with virtually every project that has Charlie Kaufman’s fingerprints on it, Anomalisa is an insight into the writer/director’s particularly idiosyncratic worldview and plethora of neuroses. The film tells the story of a lonely, mentally ill man (voiced by David Thewlis) who travels to Cincinatti to present a keystone speech at a customer service convention. Every person that he encounters along the way has the same face and speaks with the same voice (Tom Noonan), including cab drivers, his wife and son, and even the former lover with whom he attempts to reconnect on his single night in town. When she revels how emotionally and irrevocably devastated she was by his departure, he finds temporary succor in the arms of a shy woman named Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), whose face is scarred and who is attending the conference with her more extroverted and attractive BFF Emily. Although he contemplates leaving his family for her, in the light of day, she moves from anomalous to anonymous as she takes on the face and voice of everyone else. His presentation goes awry when he has a mental breakdown on stage, and he returns home as empty and incomplete as he was at the film’s outset.

The film is a technical marvel, a stop-motion animated feature that utilized 3D printing to create the many stages of facial expression across a sea of duplicate people, and the design and detail work on display is simply stunning. Michael Stone’s gradually building psychotic episode is beautifully telegraphed in a mirror-contemplating scene that sees his face revolving through a series of different faces, and an operatically composed dream sequence includes a moment where his countenance falls apart and reveals the framework underneath. Technically, the film is virtually flawless once you become accustomed to the world’s aesthetic (the line that separates the tops and bottoms of faces is distracting at the outset), and the concept of a world of interchangeable people is realized elegantly.

The narrative, however, leaves a little to be desired. As a peak into Kaufman’s mind, this is yet another story about a reprehensibly self-oriented and self-interested man whose outbursts this time around are rationalized as the result of an undiagnosed mental illness. Once again, an unsympathetic man is brought so low that we the audience cannot help but feel some empathy for his plight; we spend so much time with Stone alone and in an “unobserved” state that he becomes familiar enough that we’re willing to go along on his journey. Of course, his journey exists only in the literal sense, as, ironically, there is no self-discovery for a man who spends so much of his mental energy reflecting upon himself.

Stone is a man who: passively suggests hooking up with his ex, moments after she reveals that she spent the first year after he left her unable to get out of bed; has raised an utterly spoiled and ungrateful child whose brattiness is communicated in a scant three minutes onscreen; and considers leaving his wife and family for what he presumes would be a life of less self-loathing with an uncomplicated Midwestern woman (who has much more going on under the surface than he is willing or able to see). Although we’re living in a post-Don Draper world and it feel’s like the west is drowning in stories of this ilk, Anomalisa feels fresh, if only because of its unusual visual rhetorical space. It’s utterly impossible to like Stone despite his fundamentally broken nature, but the nature of the presentation goes a long way towards making him stand out from the Tony Sopranos and Dr. Houses of the world. It’s a third-person depiction of a first-person point of view, and this immersiveness saves the film from feeling too stale.

This should in no way be read as an indictment of Thewlis’s performance, which is fantastic. He’s not alone: Leigh also does great work here, playing Lisa’s vulnerability and tenaciousness in equal parts, giving life to a character that is ultimately much more human and endearingly honest than Stone. There’s an edge to her line-readings that gives Lisa a physical presence that could be felt even if there were no plastic bodies awkwardly humping each other on screen. Noonan embues each of the diverse characters he plays with variations on a theme, and his irascible cab driver and burned lover are standouts. Still, Thewlis brings a great dimension to the role of Stone, which also contributes to the effectiveness of the story despite its static narrative.

The story is really only tired in broad strokes, however, as the particularities of details are generally novel. Lisa is essentially the opposite of a manic pixie dream girl, a customer service team leader from Akron who lives in Emily’s shadow and considers herself stupid; her favorite food is scrambled eggs and her musical interests skew heavily toward Cyndi Lauper, but she is genuinely interested in improving herself and the state of her life. Her encounter with Stone changes him not at all, but she grows as a result of it, which is a narrative anomaly (no pun intended). The film is also quite observational in the way that it captures true-to-life moments in awkward conversations with eager service industry personnel (including phone reps, cab drivers, bellboys, bar attendants, and cashiers) and being forced to witness interactions between unhappy couples.

This all illustrates the film’s interest in drama but fails in its recapitulation of the comic elements. Much like last year’s Queen of Earth, there is a conscious meditation upon the way that living with or adjacent to mental illness is not the perpetually joyless experience that forms the narrative basis of most literary interrogations of the subject. It’s a rarely discussed observation of the human condition, that while some people are comic or tragic figures, most of us have varying percentages of both throughout our lives, and it’s not always easy or indeed necessary to categorize existence in such binary terms. That’s not to mention the other subtle jokes throughout the film; for instance, Cincinatti chili sounds intriguing and horrifying, and I appreciate the pride that the fictional Ohioans take in their bizarre concoction and their zoo. There’s also a lot to unpack about the fact that Stone’s breakdown stream-of-consciousness is interpreted to be critical of soldiers, prompting an attendee to shout about “supporting the troops,” especially combined with the hotelier’s framed George W. Bush portrait in Stone’s dream sequence.

Speaking of which, as the film largely sticks to a realism even if the point of view is warped, the surreality of Stone’s nightmare sequence is worth the ticket price alone, and is what I expect most people will be talking about long after seeing the film. It’s also the most recognizably Kaufman-esque part of the movie; the sea-of-interchangable faces conceit is present throughout and is obviously evocative of the restaurant full of John Malkovitches seen in Being John Malkovitch (and revisited in Adaptation), but Stone’s story doesn’t otherwise lend itself to Kaufman’s more eccentric imagery. In the dream sequence, however, there’s an exploration of space that is reminiscent of the half-floor in the office building from Malkovitch, and Stone’s attempt to escape through a sea of improbably-close desks is pure Kaufman visual flourish. There’s less Synecdoche, New York in the film’s DNA, which may be for the best, as this film feels less like a masturbatory ode about being a misunderstood and self-destructive artist and isn’t also largely impenetrable (individual responses may vary). That having been said, in defense of Synecdoche, none of Anomalisa’s images are as haunting as that film’s perpetually burning house, curling tattooed leaves, or infinitely recursive series of miniaturized metropoli.

Overall, Anomalisa is a great film that draws you into its headspace with compelling imagery. While the plot may not be as much of a technical masterpiece as its cinematography, its potentially played-out story is sufficiently fleshed out (again, no pun intended) that it will likely remain culturally relevant long after the genre of paint-by-numbers privileged-white-guy-versus-ennui has receded back into the ether from which it came. If not a masterpiece, then the film is definitively a cinematic experience that demands to be seen.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond