The Films of Charlie Kaufman

I don’t like waiting. Sitting around, eager for the long-awaited event of a lifetime to occur, but dammit, you just have to sit around a little more. One of the many things I happen to be waiting for is I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the newest film by writer-director Charlie Kaufman, considered to be one of the best writers currently living.

But if there’s one thing Kaufman likes to stress, it’s that humans don’t last forever. In fact, Kaufman really enjoys teaching people scary, existentialist lessons — you’re still probably dumb and boring if you’re famous, pure love isn’t real, mundanity is a virus that is highly infectious and can kill you, artistic integrity is dead — you know, the good things in life. So while we sit around and wait for whatever we’re waiting for, why not distract yourself by reading about these seven movies that Kaufman has written? I’m sure he’d approve.

Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) and Jim Byrd (George Clooney)

7. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) dir. George Clooney

It really sucks writing about a film that you have just…so little to say about. I was optimistic about this — I really was. Sam Rockwell? Kaufman writing? Spy thriller? How could I be bored?

I was bored.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a biopic about Chuck Barris, the creator of The Dating Game and host of The Gong Show. He wrote an autobiography (that has the same name of the movie) claiming he had been working as an assassin for the CIA all throughout his time as a game show producer and host. Being that this was my last watch of the marathon, it sounded very un-Kaufman. He had already written three screenplays, all of which had great concepts (one of them was his best, but we’ll talk about that eventually) and all had interesting things to say.

Did he do this for money? I think he did this for money.

I guess this is the part where I talk about “x was good” and “y was not good.” Sam Rockwell did a good job, of course. Nobody else’s performance stuck out to me. It looked fine, it sounded fine…I liked the production design and recreation of the time period? Really, it’s that aspect that’s keeping this film from being a point lower. Nothing was bad, it’s just so aggressively fine. There’s nothing in its presentation that makes it special — Clooney really didn’t bring anything to it as a director. That’s not what I want to watch. I want to watch movies that are either great or greatly embarrassing — this was neither. Can I write about the interesting ones now?

Rating: 6/10

Puff (Rhys Ifans)

6. Human Nature (2001) dir. Michel Gondry

Focus in film is important. No, not the focus you get on a camera (although that’s also important), but focus on your stories, your characters, and your themes. And while there are worse cases of this, i.e. Southland Tales (sorry, it’s a compulsion — I can never resist hating on it), it’s still distracting and feels a little sloppy.

Human Nature follows three different story threads. Patricia Arquette plays a woman with a genetic disorder that causes hair to grow all over her body, Tim Robbins plays a scientist who is weirdly obsessed with teaching animals table manners, and Rhys Ifans plays a man whose father raised him as an ape. The first 20–30 minutes of this film are just kind of a mess — it hops from character to character with no direct connection, there’s lots of narration that explains things that could’ve been presented visually, and there’s one character whose introduction feels weird and out of place.

And then after that, this movie is good.

As with most non-Kaufman directed scripts, it’s visually “meh” — there’s an understanding of filmmaking and the shots are competent, but it doesn’t do anything that interesting with its colors or environments. I liked the ideas it brings up on the imbalance between modern society and the natural world, it had a good sense of humor about it, Peter Dinklage makes a cameo that’s rather funny, and the performances are mostly pretty good.

It slows down majorly in the middle and begins to feel repetitive, which is a shame — I was really getting into it then. I have a little more to say about this than Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, I was infinitely more engaged and interested — but that’s not saying much, honestly. But now I can crack my knuckles, go get some water, and write about some really good movies.

Rating: 6/10

John Malkovich (John Malkovich), Maxine Lund (Catherine Keener), and Craig Schwartz (John Cusack)

5. Being John Malkovich (1999) dir. Spike Jonze

Movies that Kaufman work on are really, really ridiculous when you write them out/say them out loud. Like, really ridiculous.

And out all of them, Being John Malkovich is the most ridiculous.

“A puppeteer discovers a hole in the wall in his workplace that is actually a portal inside the head of John Malkovich, and because he is so good at puppeteering, he can control said John Malkovich easily, and then he and his coworker start a scheme that lets people become Malkovich for fifteen minutes in exchange for money.”

See what I mean?

If that doesn’t hook you, god knows what will — but if that isn’t enough, pretty much everything about this movie is exceptional. The acting is all fantastic, it looks really good, it’s very funny, and of course, the script is exceptional. It must’ve been wild to be interested in film in 1999, having spent the summer wringing your hands over the nerve shredding Blair Witch Project and feeling like garbage after American Beauty, only to sit down in the theater and watch…this.

This movie gets weirder and weirder as it goes along (there’s a scene shot from the POV of a chimp, Malkovich finds out about the portal and goes through it and something REALLY bizarre happens, etc), and it’s never slow or stale or feels like “let’s just do this for no reason.” These are absolutely the best performances from John Cusack, Catherine Keener, and Cameron Diaz, and while this isn’t my favorite John Malkovich performance (wait for my next article), it’s certainly one that I really love. It presents really interesting and well-communicated ideas on fame, and while I’ve only seen it once, I can imagine picking up on many more details and thematic clues on a second run through.

It’s pretty insane, it’s very funny, it’s very unconventional — it’s something I’d highly recommend.

Rating: 8/10

Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) and Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet)

4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) dir. Michel Gondry

I take back what I said about non-Kaufman directed films being visually “meh.” Maybe most of them are, but this just isn’t the best looking of that category — it’s the best looking Kaufman movie, period.

It’s a fantastic concept. A man wakes up, having experienced big gaps in his memory recently. Impulsively, he gets on a train to Montauk. He finds nothing there. On the way home, he comes across a woman he finds himself increasingly attracted to. Through flashback, we learn that these two were previously a couple — and after she underwent a procedure to erase him from her mind after they split, he decided to do the same. As his memories of her fade, he realizes he wants to keep them.

Man, that’s…what a great idea. And thanks to Jim Carrey giving his best performance to date and some pretty exceptional presentation, it’s brought to life near flawlessly. You see, we actually get to spend time inside Jim Carrey’s mind as it wipes itself in reverse of Kate Winslet, starting with his most recent memories of her and finishing with his very first. When we’re inside his head, the presentation gets…awesome. Transitions and dark spaces are lit using a very off-kilter method — a big circle of light follows the characters as the camera moves wildly and everything else receives practically no lighting.

It’s satisfying from start to finish, with plenty of setups and payoffs that are just great to see play out, and on top of that, the main characters’ relationship feels remarkably believable. Carrey and Winslet play these characters as very real and grounded people, and it makes both of them very likable in their different ways.

It’s strangely insightful and thoughtful, there’s a lot of really funny and smartly planned things that happen in the story, and it’s an incredibly solid and surprisingly quick watch. Probably the least disturbing/depressing of the excellent scripts Kaufman has written — and just excellent in general.

Rating: 9/10

Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman)

3. Synecdoche, New York (2008)

The problem with writing about the ones Kaufman has directed (a problem which I’m sure will plague me on Saturday the fifth) is that he’s almost a little too smart. Jonze and Gondry are great directors, but the best parts of their works are the acting and scripts — the scripts are what make the films challenging, while the directing is merely to help the script play out. Kaufman is different. Without having to put his scripts in the hands of people he trusts, he can do essentially whatever he wants.

And whatever he wants, he does in his directorial debut: Synecdoche, New York.

This film often reminds of me Primer, a movie that I consider to be one of the smartest I’ve ever seen, in that you will likely not appreciate it if you only watch it once. There’s detail in every corner of this story, and in every detail, there’s some kind of meaning. I didn’t love this the first time I saw it. I recognized that every performance (except the child, one of the few factors holding this back from a double digit score) was excellent, that the music was beautiful, and that the concepts presented were both engaging and unique. I’m glad I watched it a second time.

People like to talk about how this is “one of the most depressing movies ever made,” but I’ve never really thought of it that way.

Synecdoche follows Caden Cotard, a playwright in his forties. Caden lives an average life. His marriage is slowly dying, his daughter is becoming more curious about the world, and he’s visibly unsettled by any minor health problem he comes across. That’s it. There’s no big catalyst that gets the film going — it just starts. And yet, it has one of the best scripts to any film I’ve ever seen.

To me, Synecdoche has never been a depressing movie (aside from the “I didn’t jump! Get up!” scene, which is just morbid) as much as it is a warning. Yes, watching Caden flounder and struggle as his biological clock ticks is certainly upsetting, but I’m not Caden — and I don’t have to be, and neither do you. You can’t balance a focus on death and life — you have to focus on one at a time. Non-existence lasts a lot longer than existence, so spend your time with the latter while you still can.

Yeah, I could explain more about the plot, I could talk about each individual character, I could discuss the meaning of every scene, but that would take forever, and we don’t have that. Let’s move on.

Rating: 9/10

Charlie (Nicolas Cage) and Donald Kaufman (Nicolas Cage)

2. Adaptation. (2002) dir. Spike Jonze

One of the ways you can tell that a movie is truly a personal highlight is if as soon as you finish, all you want to do is to rewatch it immediately so you can figure out just how they did it. It was like that for Enter the Void, it was like that for ’Til Madness Do Us Part (well, maybe not that, as it’s four hours long), and it’s never been more like that than with Adaptation.. (Is the period after the title driving you crazy yet? Welcome to my world!)

No, you’re not seeing double — that is Nicolas Cage playing two characters, in a film whose metatexuality rivals The Holy Mountain. Adaptation. is about Charlie Kaufman and his twin brother, Donald. Kaufman is tasked (as he was in real life) with writing an adaptation of Susan Orlean’s 1998 non-fiction novel The Orchid Thief. He experiences writer’s block and instead elected to write about his writer’s block instead. As such, the Cage-Kaufman, in the movie, adapts the book by writing about not being able to adapt the book, which is exactly what Charlie Kaufman is doing in real life, and —

Good thing I cut that paragraph off. I’d run on forever. It’s a pretty insane and ballsy concept that could have stepped off the ledge into pretentiousness, but it balances on the edge of a knife and walks away cut-free. This is probably Kaufman’s best script, although that’s a hard one to pick. Nicolas Cage gives his absolute best performance as a stand in for the actual Charlie Kaufman and the fictional Donald Kaufman. If there’s a Blu-ray I ever wanted to own, it’s probably this one — I NEED to know how they did so many of the shots where both Cages are in the same frame. Meryl Streep (as Orchid Thief author Susan Orlean) and Chris Cooper (as the real life main character of The Orchid Thief) are also amazing in this. It looks good, of course. Spike Jonze movies aren’t really built on looking nice (aside from Her) so much as they are being extremely well-directed, so I’m not really complaining about the lack of visual presentation.

The places this story goes could be seen as nothing short of ludicrous, but it’s incredibly self-aware and in a way, that’s part of the commentary — sometimes, adaptations go in places that make no sense in regard to their source material. The film is both a parody of itself and a parody of adaptations. Yes, you read that right — Adaptation. is an adaptation that parodies other adaptations, including itself, an adaptation.

Maybe take a breather before you finish this article. I can hear your cerebrum fusing from here.

Rating: 10/10

Everyone else (Tom Noonan) and Michael Stone (David Thewlis)

1. Anomalisa (2015)

It’s pretty incredible that animated films, of all genres, are the ones that tend to get under my skin the most. Watching Bill slowly die as his memories walk an uneven circle around him in It’s Such a Beautiful Day, seeing the ragged stray Chief understand why pets exist in Isle of Dogs — and then there’s this thing. This…object. If Beautiful Day is an emotional low and Isle is an emotional high, I don’t even think Anomalisa belongs on the scale. That’s why I put this one off as long as I did, why I wrote every other entry first before timidly typing this first paragraph — this is an incredibly challenging work of art on every level.

Anomalisa is a stop motion film that is co-directed by a man named Duke Johnson, the animator behind Adult Swim’s surreal satire Moral Orel and a guest animator on Community’s season two Christmas special (which he won an Emmy for). It follows a man named Michael Stone, who is a motivational speaker and customer service expert. Like Caden Cotard, Michael is an everyman — one child, a wife, a fairly successful career. Michael has one small problem. Everyone around him, his wife, his child, male or female, all sound and look the exact same — like a forty-something white man. It’s a pretty unsettling and upsetting situation to be stuck in, and Kaufman doesn’t restrict this odd feature to the background. It’s used for some pretty funny comedy — hearing Tom Noonan voice Michael’s son, who gleefully announces to him over the phone “daddy, I’m in my pirate costume!” will always be gold, as will a couple arguing in a hotel hallway, the quarrel sounding like a man saying “fuck you!” over and over again.

While Isle of Dogs might have the best production design and backgrounds in a stop motion film that I’ve ever seen, Anomalisa has the best animation. The characters move in a way that looks almost real, but also not. There are quite a few long takes with complicated motions and minor things happening in the backgrounds, there is detail in every set and nothing is out of place or unrealistic (as realistic as it can be for this concept), and the voice acting is fantastic. There are only three voice actors — Tom Noonan, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and David Thewlis — and they all fit their roles incredibly well. Thewlis’ smooth, dulcet tones are pleasing on the ears, especially when everyone else is Noonan. (No offense to him, of course — the film does a good job of making you as tired of his voice as Michael probably is.) I’m trying not to get into the plot — all of the summaries I’ve seen edge around the inciting event and do it pretty perfectly, in my opinion.

What I will say is that this movie is creative, thought-provoking, remarkably short, worth at least three watches, and my favorite — second favorite — I don’t know — animated film of all time. It is an absolute must-watch, and I have thought about it nearly every day since I’ve seen it.

Rating: 10/10

Where to find these films as of publication (U.S. REGION ONLY):

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind: Stream on CBS All Access, Hoopla, Vudu Free, and DirectTV, purchase on AppleTV, Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, Fandango Now, Vudu, or Microsoft

Human Nature: Purchase on AppleTV, Amazon, Fandango Now, Vudu, or Microsoft

Being John Malkovich: Stream on Netflix or DirectTV, purchase on AppleTV, Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, Fandango Now, Vudu, Microsoft, Redbox, or DirectTV

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Stream on Netflix or DirectTV, purchase on AppleTV, Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, Fandango Now, Vudu, Microsoft, Redbox, DirectTV, or AMC Theaters on Demand

Synecdoche, New York: Purchase Amazon, Fandango Now, Vudu, AppleTV, Google Play, YouTube, Microsoft, DirectTV

Adaptation.: Purchase on AppleTV, Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, Fandango Now, Vudu, Microsoft, Redbox, DirectTV, or AMC Theaters on Demand

Anomalisa: Stream on Tubi, Crackle, Popcornflix, Pluto TV, purchase Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, Vudu, Microsoft, Redbox, or AppleTV

I’m Thinking of Ending Things will be available on Netflix on September 4th

I like writing decent reviews and such.

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