A film that will cause fights

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And now, your love-it-or-loathe-it movie of 2020. The film that will either have you dissecting the plot for hours with friends or make you storm off to your bedroom to tweet insults at Netflix’s social-media intern. It’s Charlie Kaufman’s latest, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.”

Kaufman, one of just a few star screenwriters in the biz, has long been Hollywood’s lovable whack job. Only in his warped worlds can a puppeteer take an office gig on a half-floor where a doorway leads him into John Malkovich’s brain (“Being John Malkovich”), or can a company offer a new therapy that erases specific painful experiences from your memory in (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”).

This new film is even stranger than that. When “Ending Things” is at its best, you wonder if the characters are figments of an unseen person’s imagination.

At first, nothing is abnormal. We’re let inside a new relationship that, like millions before it, looks like it’s going to flame out early. A nameless young woman (Jessie Buckley) is picked up by her boyfriend of seven weeks, Jake (Jesse Plemons), to go have dinner at his parents’ rural farmhouse. But she’s having second thoughts.

Jesse Plemons and Jessie Buckley in "I'm Thinking of Ending Things."
Jesse Plemons and Jessie Buckley in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”AP

“I’m thinking of ending things,” the woman says in narration, which continues throughout the movie. She’s not that into this guy, who’s an argumentative creep (Plemons, of “Breaking Bad” and “Black Mirror: USS Callister” fame, has cornered that market). From their uncomfortable monotone, you can tell neither is elated. But it’s easier, she insists, to stay together.

When they arrive at the house, the tone switches to horror. His parents are played with dark eccentricity by Toni Collette and David Thewlis, and they have the stench of Norman Bates. Maybe there’s a corpse in the freezer. Then small details call everything into question: Did that picture just change? Didn’t she say she was an artist? Was he that old in the last scene? Kaufman also cuts to an old-school janitor for brief, unremarkable glimpses at his day.

David Thewlis and Toni Collette in "I'm Thinking of Ending Things."
David Thewlis and Toni Collette in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”AP

The irregular storytelling is paired with screenwriting anarchy. Choice lines from Pauline Kael’s review of “A Woman Under the Influence” are turned — without acknowledgment — into a monologue. So is the version of mathematician John Nash’s Nobel Prize speech as written in “A Beautiful Mind.” The effect is mesmerizing … or insufferable.

I was entranced, and unlike another film with a knotty plot out this week, this one was fun to untangle.

Kaufman started taking on directing duties with 2008’s “Synecdoche, New York,” and his relative simplicity here compared to the stylings of his previous collaborators Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry allows magic moments to pop out of nowhere.

He makes “Ending Things” into a screen version of the immersive off-Broadway play “Sleep No More,” whisking us into seemingly normal rooms in which otherworldly scenes hazily play out.

One of the most sublime and haunting examples is modeled after the dream-ballet scene from the musical “Oklahoma!” In the movie, Broadway’s terrific Ryan Steele and New York City Ballet dancer Unity Phelan materialize in a high school hallway, and in movement they tell a story of innocence, lust and murder.

The ending won’t please everyone. It certainly helps if you know who Jud Fry is. But for anybody who’s gotten into puzzles during the pandemic, here’s another.

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