The close of the “Influence” section of the movie is a good time to take stock of an important trait of our main characters. In addition to all of the other ways that Jake and the young woman compare and contrast, they are also very interesting examinations of comfort zones and how they affect relationships.
Jake clearly has a tiny comfort zone. This is someone who doesn’t stray far from the world he grew up in, to the point that his entire intellectual history can be housed in a “boyhood room.” His imagination is constrained by his tastes. He admires a painter, so he attempts (badly) to imitate him. He grows up as someone who memorized the Trivial Pursuit Genus edition card set — and spends his leisure time at trivia contests. He’s adopted his dad’s taste for Broadway show tunes.
The young Jake does not live in his parents’ house, but he’s trapped in it. He can’t escape his mother’s opinions, and can’t shrug off his father’s casual emasculation and stubborn know-nothingness. He can’t even escape the flash-forward judgments of young women who only know him in his elder janitor form. It’s no surprise whatsoever that an older Jake would flee back to this home, he is comforted by it, horrors, disappointments and all.
The young woman, on the other hand, lives bravely outside of her own comfort zones. She barely seems to remember where it is she grew up and doesn’t mention her family at all. Intellectually, she shape shifts from one area of expertise to another without concern for others judgments. She feels completely comfortable taking up debates in Jake’s place and arguing with him on the side of his intellectual superiors.
Even with this great effort to prove and maintain her independence, the young woman faces a grave threat — stepping out of your own comfort zones sometimes isn’t enough if you’ve decided to take on a partner in life too attached to theirs. In instances like these, the lowest common denominators tends to win out and the partner with the smallest comfort zone wins. The young woman sees that Jake’s choices and non choices will soon become hers. She too will be trapped in his childhood house, with his childhood room, and his artistic disappointments and unprocessed resentments towards all the people, especially women, who have judged him as strange.
The New Yorker review of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” by Richard Brody, makes some astute points about how Jake is doomed to be a terrible partner for the young woman. However, I don’t fully buy Brody’s argument that Jake will inevitably fail in a crucial moment. Rather, I think Jake is a doomed partner because he refuses to be influenced by the young woman. He doesn’t see her as an inspiration to set his sights beyond the cramped world he inhabits. Jake is overjoyed to show off the young woman as evidence of his worthiness, intellectual and otherwise, but defers to her in much the same way his mother deferred to him, fully accepting his inferiority while quietly demanding she shrink herself down to live in the tiny universe he’s capable of inhabiting.
It is therefore up to the young woman to free herself from this tiny, suffocating universe and find a way to be seen without Jake. This turns the second half of the movie into something akin to “The Wizard of Oz,” with both characters being pulled towards the high school and the janitor. While Brody sees the confrontation at the end of the film as evidence of him putting the young woman in harms way, I see it more as a matter of deliverance.
The movie climaxes with the young woman talking to the janitor in the hallway, rewriting her relationship narrative and being seen by him as a fully autonomous person. But I’m getting ahead of myself now. There’s much more on the white snowy (as opposed to yellow brick) road ahead, and all of these challenges do nothing to shake Jake’s worldview. Then again, they aren’t his challenges.