The acclaimed writer takes his third shot at directing and he probably needs to talk to Spike Jonze again.
A young woman (Jessie Buckley) is thinking of breaking up with her boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons), while on a trip to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis). Jake is a pseudo-intellectual who constantly attempts to quote poems, but often gets them wrong or incomplete. The same is true of most of his opinions; they’re either ripped off from other sources inaccurately or he fails to fully have them. He seems to have broad knowledge of culture, but it turns out he mostly only knows a few specific things. The young woman tries to introduce herself to Jake’s family, but all of her versions of their relationship seem completely irreconcilable. The young woman’s identity seems to change frequently, as do Jake’s parents. Throughout the movie, we also see an elderly janitor (Guy Boyd) who works at a school in the town near Jake’s parents’ house watching kids practice Oklahoma!
I can’t really discuss this movie without somehow spoiling it, but I also don’t know that it hurts the experience. Here’s what I can say without spoilers: much like Kaufman’s previous movies he both wrote and directed, Synecdoche, New York and Anomalisa, most of this film is not literal. You’ll pick up on that pretty early when you see the characters change their appearances and names. The truth of what the film is about is only revealed towards the end and is just subtle enough that you might miss it if you’re not paying attention. I’d also advise you to watch through the film because the last thing you hear might change the film a bit.
A lot of this film is enhanced if you happen to know all of the pop culture that is being referenced, but most of it is pretty specific. For example, about five minutes of the movie is dedicated just to a John Cassavetes film and Pauline Kael’s review of it. If you didn’t immediately know who both of those people are, you’re going to probably be a bit confused during that portion. I mean, you can still enjoy it, but it’s distracting. Some stuff like that happens throughout.
Overall, if you’re a die-hard Kaufman fan, by which I mean you liked his previous directing works, you will probably enjoy this. If you liked Adaptation or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, this might also be up your alley. Otherwise, this might be a little too much Kaufman.
So, as the movie reveals, the Janitor is just the older Jake. Having completely failed to do anything that he wanted to do with his life, Jake now spends his days imagining the world in which he was smart, funny, accomplished, and had the girlfriend that his parents always wanted for him. As the movie goes on, we see him imagine progressively more ridiculous things, including winning a Nobel Prize (using the speech from A Beautiful Mind) and performing a song from Oklahoma! By the end, we see that Jake has had a complete mental breakdown and is murdering his own mental image. That’s when the movie’s title, which was apparently about the girl dumping Jake, instead becomes about Jake taking his own life.
The surreal nature of the way this film is done is a reflection of Jake’s broken mind. Like many people, Jake feels that he never got the life that Hollywood and pop culture seemed to promise him. He’s resentful of the gap between what he wants and what he actually gets. However, it becomes clear that he mostly is just an entitled loser. He mimics what he hears rather than thinking for himself and produces nothing, but he still wanted all of the rewards. It’s a very sad tale that is even more sadly relatable to many people nowadays.
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