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‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ – a Charlie Kaufman movie that’s both too much and too little

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A scene from "I'm Thinking of Ending Things"

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

Never mind being John Malkovich. Try being Charlie Kaufman.

It would probably take Kaufman himself to pull that off, though there are those who’d say he’s already done it. That his movies, from “Adaptation” to “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” to, well, “Being John Malkovich” are about being Charlie Kaufman.

A scene from “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”

Kaufman began directing his own scripts several movies ago, and this time, it’s a Netflix original he adapted from the 2016 Canadian novel, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.”

The “I” (I think, but can’t say for sure) is Lucy – also variously called similar-sounding names – played with commitment and nuance by a game Jessie Buckley. She and her new boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons, also fine), are driving through a blizzard to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis). Lucy worries about getting back to the city under such hazardous conditions, but Jake keeps assuring her, “I have chains.”

And boy, does he. His parents live on a dilapidated farm, littered with dead animals and a border collie that may or may not be real. And his folks, well, think of “Meet the Parents” done as a “Twilight Zone” episode. They, too, have various stages of reality, sometimes appearing as vital and young-ish; other times, so frail as to be on a deathbed.

There’s a surreal family dinner, dominated by a huge ham and a hard-to-ignore Jello mold that no one touches.  And a visit to Jake’s childhood bedroom where a book by Pauline Kael (the New Yorker’s celebrated late movie critic) is prominently displayed. And, perhaps inevitably, a trip to the ominous-sounding basement.

A movie poster for “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”

However, the movie’s meat-and-potatoes are the seemingly endless scenes in Jake’s car where they (and we) are surrounded by the constant howling wind and the snuffling creak of the car’s ancient windshield wipers. The two engage in epic conversations, touching on everything from William Wordsworth to the aforementioned Kael’s review of the 1974 John Cassavetes movie, “A Woman Under the Influence,” which Lucy recites from memory (it seems). “Nothing she does is memorable,” Kael writes of the film’s star (and Cassavetes wife), Gena Rowlands. “Because she does so much.”

The same could be said about Kaufman’s movie. It’s like an over-stuffed piñata, pre-programmed to set your head spinning. Or splitting. Or both. And I haven’t even mentioned the Dairy Queen on the Edge of the World or the high-school drive-by that ventures into “The Shining” territory (with a huge dollop of the classic musical, “Oklahoma”).

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is somehow both too much and too little. To its credit, the picture is not a cheat. But it isn’t a triumph either. And like Stanley Kubrick (speaking of “The Shining…”), Kaufman is a heartless filmmaker. By the end, you feel more pummeled than touched. And you have to ask yourself, at 2 hours and 14 minutes, does the punishment fit the time?

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Eleanor Ringel

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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