The conversational mood in the car proceeds to move between tenderness, frustration, and boredom: welcome to monogamy in quarantine. Is this movie going to be a COVID-19 allegory, a cousin to the climate change torture porn, mother! (Darren Aronofsky, 2017)? Seemingly in response to my mental query, the couple starts to discuss how “viruses are monstrous,” but, then again “everything wants to live.”
Take a breath. You are like a virus, Annie: you also want to live. I look around the room, my husband on his phone, and I turn to watch my son sleeping on the baby monitor. Charlie Kaufman is not hiding behind my sectional — it just feels like he is. Nearly an hour later, when Jake and Lucy are back in the car and one tells the other, “I don’t think we know how to be human anymore,” and I don’t bat an eye. This movie, to borrow its own terminology, is “infecting my brain.” But even now, I cringe recalling the couple discussing the mother as cultural scapegoat and Freudian preoccupation, just as my toddler came barreling toward me, ready to clock me with a board book.
Netflix has caught me — and, I suspect, many of us — red-handed, as we seek out a balm for our perpetual loneliness. Social scientists insist media consumption only deepens those feelings of isolation and alienation, but cinephiles and TV buffs aren’t about to stop. And while psychoanalytic film theory suggests we look into the mirror/screen seeking ourselves, I happen to be sick of my own face and would prefer to escape into someone else’s. My romance with screens, or so my parents tell me, began with Sesame Street and Wheel of Fortune. Wherever my eyes landed, I sought out the sunny, blonde faces of Big Bird and Vanna White. And lately, I am suffering from some kind of cinematic pareidolia, hungry for an unfamiliar human face in every closeup, craving a full person when all I have is a collection of pixels. As Zadie Smith describes her domestic life in her recent essay collection, Intimations, “Her face, her face, her face. Your face, your face, your face. The only relief is two faces facing forward, toward a screen.” Put another way for the Kaufman fanatic, Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich.
The day before Netflix dropped I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the streamer premiered another original film, the perky romantic comedy Love, Guaranteed (Mark Steven Johnson, 2020), starring Rachael Leigh Cook and Damon Wayans Jr. These two movies would seem to have little in common: one is a surreal dreamscape about aging, art, and white, male fragility, while the other contains the line “It’s not a risk to fall in love, it’s a risk not to,” uttered in open court. And in true romcom fashion, if these two movies met at a party or crashed into each other holding very different stacks of books, they would hate each other. But these movies share a bond that is almost obvious, considering the messenger: that people compulsively look into screens seeking love and comfort in response to nonstop loneliness. Of course, the fault, dear viewer, is not in our screens but in ourselves. But, happily for Netflix, stories about the social distance between people are hot right now, and the media service provider has a wide swath of captive viewers to use and abuse.
I’m thinking of ending this essay. I’d rather go and stream more garbage. Here goes anyway.
On their ride to his parents’ house, Jake begs Lucy to recite one of her latest poems, this one entitled “Bonedog.” Lucy’s eyes fill with tears as she speaks, ending on the lines: “You come back with X-ray vision, your eyes have become a hunger. You come home with your mutant gifts to a house of bone. Everything you see now, all of it, bone.” Here, she breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly into the camera.
My eyes are a hunger? All that I am seeing is bone?
Jake is impressed, saying not once but twice, “It’s like you wrote it about me.” Lucy’s gaze flits to the camera as he says it, communicating to us … what exactly? Maybe she is rolling her eyes at Jake, with his rudimentary understanding of poetry, a form designed, as Lucy replies, to find “the universality in the specific.” Possibly she wants us to know that the poem, with its bruising turns of phrase, was really for us, just like we felt it was, and that frisson of connection and panic we experienced as her eyes locked with ours was real.
Maybe I’m just lonely.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things takes Iain Reid’s 2016 novel about a lonely person and turned it into a platonic incarnation of loneliness. And in case you don’t catch this right away, the movie takes great pains to tell you as much. At its best, this movie captures something achingly familiar in the surreal, and what could be more banal and fraught than meeting someone else’s family? Not knowing any of the rules or the pitfalls and sensing a tension you can’t entirely articulate, you feel lonely, while wishing you were alone. Lucy, a physicist with a passion for the arts, attempts to explain to Jake’s father how her landscape paintings capture her “interiority … lonely, joyous, worried, sad.” The patriarch, a lover of sports photography, is bemused. “How can a picture of a field be sad without a sad person looking sad in the field?” he asks. “Well, maybe think of yourself as the person looking out at the scene,” Lucy offers. “If you were there, you wouldn’t see yourself, right?” He is skeptical. Here, Kaufman is the magician revealing his own tricks: this is what it is like to watch any film, but especially this one.
You, yes you, have chosen to sit down at the table with Jake’s family, but, happily, this decision is reversible. You have opted into Lucy’s alienation, but, if you get bored or tired or hungry, you can think about ending things. But why not take a break from your own loneliness to occupy someone else’s for a while? What else do you have going on? Really, I’m asking.
This movie is not for people like Jake’s father. It is, rather, a movie is for people who have at least one Pauline Kael volume on their bookshelves. It also disapproves of those people.
Boy, I miss lovingly, academically, surveilling a host’s bookshelf. It is more fun and, somehow, more socially acceptable than riffling through their medicine cabinet. Being on the other end of it can be stressful. It has been months since I have been tempted to throw a bedsheet over my shelves in anticipation of judgmental guests.
Lucy peruses the shelves in Jake’s childhood bedroom: alongside his chemistry, physics, and virology textbooks are a row of Laura Ingalls Wilder novels, a volume of Wordsworth, David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and movies including Dial M for Murder, They Live, and A Beautiful Mind. The tracking shot of these objects is literally a running key cipher for the rest of the movie and its meta-preoccupations, but I’m Thinking of Ending Things is not fun for the budding detective. The mystery at its heart is too obvious, and the more I get it, the less I want it to get it. Best to take this sequence for what it is: a game, an array of cultural references that, if you are in on the unfunny joke, makes you the butt of it. You need to get out more, see some nature, connect with real, live human beings. “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation,” Jake tells Lucy — or is it Lucia? Louisa? Amy? She replies that Jake — that sweet, glum know-it-all who is sometimes volatile, immature but ancient — has just quoted an Oscar Wilde epigram. Of course he has. But then again, Lucy’s poem, “Bonedog,” is in reality from Eva H.D.’s 2015 poetry collection, Rotten Perfect Mouth.
The film is in good hands with its similarly named stars: Jessie Buckley, who projects openness and resilience, while rocking enamel hoop earrings, and Jesse Plemons, bringing his magnetic part–Norman Rockwell, part–Norman Bates energy. As performers, they suddenly shift emotional, even accented, registers, driving home the dangerously dynamic nature of their characters and, at the same time, demonstrating why it is so scary to bring another person into one’s own isolation. Books are easier, in that they offer the same, predictable pleasure every time you open them. An album can break your heart, but it can never break up with you. A movie is easier to love than a person, but it cannot love you back — it is only a projection, only defers the loneliness.
I hear you, Charlie Kaufman, but where would you be without me, neglecting my family and all the Selling Sunset episodes I have left to watch, all so I can spend time with your latest film? Are you addressing me, sir? Or am I just spoiling for a fight, because I haven’t seen the inside of a café in six months?
Kaufman may have some tongue-in-cheek disdain for his viewers — it’s really for himself, sure, fine — but he reserves a special ironic censure for the genre of the romantic comedy. It is the generic territory of peeping toms, voyeurs, and full-time third wheels, for those who prefer their passion to be predictable and conducted at least six feet away. (Unrelated I’m sure, it is also a genre targeted to women.) About halfway through the film, Kaufman drops a movie within the movie, a romcom sequence that is part-pastiche, part-parody. It has everything: the swelling music, the nostalgic diner setting, and the grand declaration of love, in which a man publicly rattles off a laundry list of what makes the leading lady special. These are the same bewitching set of traits that makes every romantic heroine so unique, so different from the other girls, even when she’s not.
All these trite conventions, and several more besides, appear in Love, Guaranteed, and while the Venn overlap between arty cinephiles and avid consumers of shlocky love stories might be small, I am in it. Watching these two films together reminded me of those Netflix binge-induced depressions that, lately, are most easily, if temporarily, assuaged with more Netflix. Even the lightest, dumbest romcom cannot resolve the loneliness it professes to treat. Love, Guaranteed knows it is a fraud. It knows it is a poor substitute for the “real thing” and delights in that knowledge. It leaves you with the artificial sweetener aftertaste of drinking a pumpkin spice latte alone on a park bench and, for this very reason, provides a fetching companion to Kaufman’s downward spiral into toxic masculine alienation.
One of these films seems to have ripped off the other, and it is impossible to know which is the impostor. Both movies’ openings feature deadened gray skies, breaking apart with flurries of white snow, and both employ eerily symmetrical domestic shots that suggest a loneliness that verges on the uncanny. Romantic comedies love symmetry because it suggests magic is afoot: it is as if we are the only people in the room; horror movies use symmetry to convey a foreboding presence: we are the only people in the room … aren’t we? Still, the eerie echoes between these shots suggest there is a singular aesthetic of loneliness from which these films draw, two copies without originals.
Unless … Charlie Kaufman, did you splice some of your B-roll into Love, Guaranteed? Who gave you permission to incept the mind of this Hallmark knock-off? You do not have my consent to worm your way into everything I watch for the express purpose of unnerving and mocking me.
Both images: Love, Guaranteed (left); I’m Thinking of Ending Things (right)
The shadowy duplex shot in Love, Guaranteed is less a repurposing of I’m Thinking of Ending Things’s American Gothic vibe and, instead, serves a narrative, even pedagogical, function. Our leading lady, workaholic do-gooder attorney Susan Whitaker (Rachael Leigh Cook), lives next door to her happily married, pregnant sister. Can you spot which is the warm and cozy family home? Can you spy the lonely spinster? The latter is on the left, shrouded in darkness, staring through her window at you looking at the screen.
This is the biggest difference between I’m Thinking of Ending Things and Love, Guaranteed. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is about peering into images in search of connection: it is about wishing the illusion could be real, that a curated set of quotations might amount to an actual personality. Love, Guaranteed suffers from the opposite compulsion, one of preferring the fiction and wanting to reduce another person — or to be reduced — to an avatar, a cardboard cutout. Love, Guaranteed may say it is opposed to the flattening of humanity that technology promotes, but, like so many folks on the dating apps, it just can’t commit.
Truthfully, it is worse than that: Love, Guaranteed gleefully embraces, even thematizes, its own emptiness. The film certainly knows this, even if its makers did not. It is a movie that is nostalgic for better, older versions of its ilk, as underscored by its dated music and corny laugh-lines. Susan’s legal team and BFFs, a gay man and a sassy blonde, would have been played, 20 years ago, by Ian Gomez and Bonnie Hunt. And while Love, Guaranteed shares some DNA with the 1998 corporate media romcom You’ve Got Mail, it’s not the chromosomes one might wish had made the jump.
The “meet-cute” is as follows: Susan’s life becomes decidedly more complicated when she takes on a new client, Nick Evans (Damon Wayans Jr.). Nick wants to sue an online dating company, Love, Guaranteed, because he failed to find love after 1,000 dates. At first, the two are proud and prejudiced against each other, because she is a chilly career gal, and he is a litigious dude-bro who negs you about your coffee order on first meeting. But it turns out that Susan loves burgers and has never seen The Fugitive, and Nick cares about saving the “community center” (don’t ask) and was once dumped by a pretty lady. In other words, they were both wrong about each other, and there is no world in which people are charming but flawed, lovable but annoying. These two are Good People, easy to love and worthy of it too.
What ends up being the most compelling aspect of Love, Guaranteed is its reckoning with the romantic ideal of being “alone together.” Susan’s quirky vintage car has a cassette tape stuck in the player that blares, on loop, Tiffany’s 1987 pop hit “I Think We’re Alone Now.” Virtually all romance plot follows two lonely, beautiful people who discover they are happiest alone together, the world blurring around them as they stroll a moonlit sidewalk. This is very different from being alone … together. In one of Susan’s first, begrudging meetings with Nick, she accuses him of “dating in bulk” and mocks his daily breakfast, lunch, and dinner dates. According to Nick, “a guy’s gotta eat,” but, he adds, “I’m not saying [‘a guy’s gotta eat’] at the date … I’m thinking it in my head.” So, he’s thinking of ending things, too.
Susan recognizes that this kind of man can’t find love (not yet, anyway), since he isn’t really seeing the women in front of him. His dates might sense they are being treated as props or data-points in a pending lawsuit, and, as a result, feel alone in his company. In the opening of the movie, as Susan leaves the courthouse, she sees a slick, suit-wearing type talking on his cell about his latest internet date: “Nah, I ghosted her. She gone.” Love, Guaranteed is a parade of women being turned into devices, objects, ghosts — but beats being alone, right? A girl’s gotta eat.
This movie suffers from disordered eating. Susan’s love of burgers signals her gameness: “I like this one,” a waitress says to Nick, smiling in Susan’s direction. The movie’s villains are women who refuse gluten and dairy, who strictly adhere to vegan diets, who pore over restaurant menus with pursed lips and narrowed eyes. They are vain and self-absorbed. They dare to be difficult, and so, for them, love will never be guaranteed. I watch this movie eating a post-dinner bowl of sugary cereal, lonesome for Nora Ephron and women who like their sauce on the side. I do not feel different from the other girls.
Spoilers ahead: The love in the title is virtually guaranteed for Nick and Susan, big romantic gesture and all. What is more surprising — and disappointing — is the couple’s ultimate marriage to an enterprise Nick earlier describes as “profiting off the lonely souls of the world.” That’s right, through plot points too silly to rehearse here, the couple becomes the new face of the dating site they attempted to sue. In romantic comedies, the leads typically start off fighting their mutual attraction but ultimately surrender to that loving feeling. But what Nick and Susan give into at film’s end is not just each other but also the siren song of the lucrative romance-industry complex. (They never stood a chance. I mean, it’s the title of the movie.) What you end up with is an inverse-Pinocchio story, in which love turns a real boy and girl into dolls. And as Love, Guaranteed™ merges with Love, Guaranteed, we discover those “lonely souls of the world” being milked for time and cash are — you guessed it — us, our own slack-jawed faces reflected in our individual screens as the credits roll.
In I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Lucy deliberates on her relationship with Jake as she walks down the staircase of his family home: “Jake needs to see me as someone who sees him. He needs to be seen, and he needs to be seen with approval. […] And he needs to see me as someone whose approval of him is validated because I’m approved by others.” By becoming the spokespeople of Love, Guaranteed, Susan and Nick have tied themselves up in this matrix of attention and approval. Now they will never be alone — or alone together — again; they’re not just a couple, they’re a brand. Lucy wants to break the cycle, break up with Jake, break free period, but, as the video loops and we watch her walk down that same set of stairs over and over … well, let’s just say it does not bode well.
Caught in a downward spiral, swipe left, swipe left, swipe left, through the desolate, cluttered interface of Netflix. If you like this show, you might also like that one, but would these two shows like each other? Would they resist each other at first before falling into each other’s arms? Might as well try something new. I can’t just watch New Girl again, can I? I’ll watch one episode of this documentary about tacos, which I’ll enjoy without getting too invested. I don’t have the time to fall in love with a show. Even as the time at home creeps in this petty pace from day to day, I have responsibilities. I am a woman on a mission, I care about my clients, I have to save the community center. That’s me: Amy! I mean, Annie. Anyway, one more episode won’t hurt. I gotta eat.
As gentle and warmly lit as it is, Love, Guaranteed hates its lonely viewer as much as I’m Thinking of Ending Things. And since I streamed both, it might hate me most of all. But, to answer Netflix’s question, yes, I’m still watching.
Annie Berke is the film editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books and is the author of Their Own Best Creations: Women Writers in Postwar Television, under contract at the University of California Press.