Once I’m Thinking of Ending Things makes it painfully, obviously clear what’s actually going on with nondescript Oklahoma intellectual artsy girl Jessie Buckley, her pseudo-intellectual, experience matters more but wait is actually smart or is he boyfriend Jesse Plemons, his weird parents—Toni Collette (who somehow manages to be the only person in the not-untalented cast to give a consistently good performance—hashtag, it’s the script’s fault) and David Thewlis (who, along with Plemons, seems to be doing an advertisement for “Fargo: The TV Show”)—and possibly creepy high school custodian Guy Boyd for the third or fourth time, the film becomes something of a waiting game. Waiting to see if director and screenwriter Kaufman can actually make anything out of it or not.
He does not.
It’s a big hill to climb, considering the script is all about presenting caricatures and his direction of his actors isn’t any better. Though it’s not like you really want Kaufman to put more effort into lionizing flyover country; he clearly wouldn’t do a good job of it.
The film actually seems structured to resist criticism, like Kaufman’s laughably bad 4:3 composition. Things is a Netflix streaming exclusive, Netflix streams in 16:9, Kaufman is a rebel who shoots in 4:3. Shame he doesn’t showcase his actors in their tight close-ups as much as have them showcase his pat dialogue; though I guess quoting Pauline Kael en masse is a flex for certain people. Stars Buckley and Plemons do get better eventually, but not permanently and it’s so obvious why they’re better the improvement just ends up annoying.
The film opens with Buckley narrating about her six week relationship with Plemons, who she either met at a trivia night or somewhere she saw in a Robert Zemeckis movie (Kaufman throwing poop at Robert Zemeckis is as good as the film gets so you can stop if it doesn’t connect, or if you don’t get the reference because then you’re not going to get the seventy-five other conversations when Kaufman tries to appeal to a “New Yorker” audience like it’s 2002 and the David Foster Wallace thing is a lot)….
The film opens with Buckley and Plemons driving to his parents. It’s like twenty minutes of them in the car in one shots talking to each other but not because Buckley’s interior monologue is running the whole time about how much she wants to dump Plemons. Then the parents, where Thewlis opens with a variation of his “Fargo” performance (which is just a mainstream Thewlis anyway) and does some refinements. He at least shows the capacity for range. Collette does wonders with a superficial role, showing the range but also the ability. Plemons and Buckley don’t have exhibit any range, which is kind of fine. At some point you’re glad it’s not better actors being wasted in the film.
Then there’s a second car ride where Kaufman decides to do some two shots so the actors get to… act together (he doesn’t do much actors acting together with the parents either; if anything, Ending is two hours and fifteen minutes of a director not actually knowing how to direct a movie). Plemons and Buckley get immediately better and then even better as the script gets weird for a moment and it seems like the obvious reveal isn’t coming.
The obvious reveal, of course, does arrive, albeit with some solid cushioning. Kaufman doesn’t do a great job with the reveal sequence but it shows more imagination than anything else in the film has to that point. The two hour mark or so.
Good photography from Lukasz Zal—not his fault Kaufman can’t compose a 4:3 shot—not good editing from Robert Frazen—but not his fault Kaufman can’t shoot scenes—not good production design from Molly Hughes, especially not for 4:3. Jay Wadley’s music is… fine.
Outside Collette being great just because, there’s no reason for Ending Things. Other than seeing what proud pseudo-elitist hipster streaming cinema looks like in 2020.