charlie kaufman review

A Window Into Charlie Kaufman’s Life Philosophy

I sit back and think to myself: “What on Earth did I just watch?”

But not in a grossed-out kind of way. More like sitting in my bed, holding on to a half-empty cereal box, and questioning my existence.

What knocked my socks off, you may ask?

Well, a Netflix movie. What else is there to do in January 2021?

But not just any movie. Charlie Kaufman’s masterpiece that is I’m Thinking of Ending Things.

The Man Who Makes the Best Movies

To be honest, I’m a little late to the party. I’m Thinking of Ending Things came out last September. It has been on my list for quite a while.

And what was supposed to be a cozy movie night turned into a full-blown existential crisis.

Charlie Kaufman. Screenwriter, director, producer. He’s the guy behind Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Simply, the man makes movies. The best movies. Movies about everything. And everyone.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was the first movie I’ve ever fallen in love with. I was 12, too young to get the gist of it. I just loved Clem and her hair. She’s so cool. Carefree, not afraid to be different.

Synecdoche, New York was the second Charlie Kaufman movie I’ve laid my eyes on.

Do you know the feeling you get when you’re so immersed in your own thoughts, you don’t even know how much time has passed? You know, you’re in the shower, random thought pops into your head, and 10 minutes later, you don’t even know your mother’s name.

I was so frustrated after watching Synecdoche. The 18-year-old me could never quite figure it out.

And now we come to I’m Thinking of Ending Things. I’m now 25 and finally able to make some sense of Kaufman’s storytelling.

This isn’t a Charlie Kaufman movie review, not really.

This is a review of life, through the eyes of people who exist in his movies.

The Reality That’s Too Surreal

After watching the Netflix psychological drama for the first time, I felt the urge to go back to Synecdoche, New York.

If you haven’t watched them yet, the following parts might get confusing.

Here’s some basic stuff, so you get the general idea of who Jake and Caden are.

Synecdoche, New York is about Caden Cotard, a theater manager from NY. The movie follows the events of his life. Eventually, Caden wastes his life trying to produce a play.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things deals with a young woman Lucy (her name changes throughout the movie) who meets her boyfriend’s parents for the first time. In reality, the film is taking place inside the mind of a lonely older janitor Jake. Jake fantasizes about the life he never had and then ends it.

Before I even attempted to dismantle Charlie Kaufman’s philosophy, I had to re-watch both movies more than once.

In Kaufman’s reality, things never happen in a linear timeline. There’s an underlying meaning to everything.

Plus, you can’t tell when things are meta and when they’re not.

What Kaufman’s Work Reveals About Humans

You can’t sit through an entire movie written by Kaufman and forget about it. When something leaves you feeling both unsettled and reassured, you can’t forget about it.

Caden Cotard and Jake relate to us. They’re both trying to tackle everyday problems the best way they can. Aren’t we all?

The depth of these movies is something we can discuss for ages. Still, reaching any logical conclusion appears impossible.

Kaufman himself often says he wants the viewers to come to their own realizations.

Let’s go for it then.

1. We Can’t Stop Time

Mortality and death are the major themes in Charlie Kaufman’s movies. Caden and Jake both deal with aging and overcoming the seasons of life.

In Synecdoche, New York we see a constant reminder of time flying without Caden even realizing it.

He can’t tell how much time has passed since his wife left him or how old his daughter is. The funny thing is, he is consumed with what time does to his body and his health.

Jake from I’m Thinking of Ending Things struggles to reconcile with the fact that his time is up.

His dreams never came true. He never got the girl he wanted. He never left his childhood home. Time went forward, but he never followed.

Trying to catch time is a losing battle.

Sit down and watch the clock on the wall. If nothing else, at some point you’ll need to empty your bladder or please the rumbling in your belly. You’re going to get up from the couch.

Time is moving. We’re moving. Even when we feel stuck, we’re moving forward.

Hazel, the only woman Caden ever loved, puts it wonderfully:

“The ending is built into the beginning.”

2. We Can’t Make Sense of Our Own Existence

Hazel bought a burning house. She spends the rest of her life in the burning house. She dies in the same house.

Unlike Caden and Jake, she is okay with the inevitable. She accepts it without asking too many questions.

Caden wastes 20 years working on a play that fails. A play that was supposed to show the brutal truth of life. Jake lives his last days dreaming of a life he never had.

They both desperately try to make sense of the world.

Hazel tried to make most of her life. Maybe we should all follow suit. We don’t know why we’re here. We can only guess.

And there’s freedom in that. We’re free to do whatever we want with that knowledge. We’re free to give it our own meaning.

3. Nobody is Special (In General)

Now that we know we all share the same inability, the inability to find the true reason we exist, we can come to terms with being human. We’re all on the same path that ends the same way. The circumstances are different.

No two people have the same face, the same experiences, or the same character traits. But faces are faces, experiences are experiences, and character is character. It’s just different people living different lifestyles. Life itself is the same.

We often say to each other: “I know how it feels”. We don’t know how it feels, but we have a perception based on how we’ve felt at some point in our lives.

You can’t fully understand how your neighbor is dealing with his divorce, but you’ve been dumped before, so you have an idea. Divorce and breakup aren’t the same things. But both represent a loss.

Facing the mess of his play (and his personal life), Caden realizes everyone is everyone. Every story is the same. The details make each story special.

4. We Can’t Fully Know Ourselves and Others

Kaufman often uses other characters to describe how the main protagonist sees the world.

Caden’s inner world is often portrayed through other characters. Sammy had been Caden’s stalker before he landed a role in his play. Ellen is the real self Caden could never notice.

(Explaining Ellen would take me an hour, so just go watch the movie).

Girl from Jake’s fantasy is never the same person. She is a painter, then she’s a writer, and then she’s a physicist.  She’s everything Jake had dreamed of becoming, but it never happened.

Both movies explore the problem with how we identify ourselves. Our actions are a mix of what we see in the media, our own beliefs, and how others see us.

Other characters in Synecdoche, New York can’t pick on what Caden is saying throughout the movie. Doctors don’t get the idea that he’s sick. Actors in his play can’t follow his instructions. He feels isolated from the rest of the world, misunderstood.

In what we presume to be the afterlife, Jake accepts the Nobel Prize. All the people sitting in the audience give him the recognition he never received when he was alive. One of Jake’s biggest regrets was never putting himself out there, never allowing people to see him.

Sammy is the one who confronts Caden with the truth: you can’t see yourself if you don’t see others. Being understood requires understanding others.

What makes Charlie Kaufman’s writing so impactful is the scenes in which the main character accepts himself and his humanity.

In the very last scene, Caden gets embraced by a woman and therefore embraces his own vulnerability. Also, almost at the end of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, we get a very touching moment when Lucy hugs Jake.

We accept all of our pieces by recognizing the same pieces in others. Ultimately, “everyone is everyone”.

The narrator of Everything and Everyone

Kaufman makes movies about everything and everyone. But Kaufman isn’t for everyone.

An hour and a half long jolly distraction from actual life? These are not the type of stories he intends to tell.

He’s here to tell stories about things we all go through. He makes art out of mundane things. That’s what talented storytellers do.

He’s the greatest storyteller ever, and you can’t tell me otherwise. And I’m a sap for sad, reflective movies.

As I’m sitting in my kitchen, writing this, drinking black coffee at 3 am, I shortly glance at my watch… Well, would you look at that!

Time does fly.


Cover image: by Marcos Paulo Prado on Unsplash