How It Ends sees mumblecore meet disaster film in a COVID-era production that serves up a rogue’s gallery of indie comedic actors.
How It Ends is about, as one character helpfully defines it, the existential scavenger hunt for your soul. As the Earth faces its last day before an Armageddon-style asteroid extinguishes all life, a young woman (Zoe Lister-Jones, of The Craft: Legacy) and her younger self (Cailee Spaeny, of Pacific Rim: Uprising) take to the streets of Los Angeles on a journey of self-discovery… and to find one last party. The film is a product of COVID and was filmed in and around Los Angeles during the pandemic’s early days. It only makes sense, then, that an artist would want to engage with both the end of the world and their own mental health.
The film itself ends up taking a very episodic structure as our two leads venture from one comedic encounter to the next. Some of these are genuinely funny weird little stories, some of them are sort of uncomfortable. The film’s single best scene sees Lister-Jones and Olivia Wilde (Meadowland) talking a mile a minute. Wilde is playing some sort of spiritual fortune telling woman, but the two have such splendid comedic chemistry. I’ll be giggling for a good long while over Wilde’s joking about her friend’s next life as Timothee Chalamet’s lover. It has the improvisational feel of great friends bantering.
Some of the other vignettes are successful as well. LaMorne Morris (New Girl) is hilarious as an ex of our heroine. He effortlessly leans into all out sleaze in his very funny performance. Helen Hunt (As Good As It Gets) attempts to add a bit of gravitas as our heroine’s mother, forced to carry a lot of emotional heft in a small amount of screen time. Colin Hanks is pitch perfect as the straight man who helps put a bow on many of the film’s themes. And Bradley Whitford (Songbird) shows up to keep his crown as Hollywood’s busiest actor during the pandemic.
Even when the scenes don’t quite come together, they’re populated by likable comedic premises like Nick Kroll (Olympic Dreams) and Charlie Day (Pacific Rim). The problem is that writer/directors Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein (Breaking Upwards) seem to have taken their very loose improvisational mumblecore approach to a more high concept story of self-discovery and Armageddon. It leaves How It Ends’ central premise feeling strangely underserved. The notion of a “younger self” that other people can see and interact with in the world is creative and interesting, but it never feels fully thought out. The “rules” are inconsistent, and the character – despite charming work from Spaeny – seems to disappear from the narrative when inconvenient.
Perhaps the strangest part of the experience How It Ends is how obviously the film is a product of COVID times without actually being a COVID movie. The characters in scenes stand awkwardly apart from one another and the directors make the choice to highlight this spacing in nearly every vignette. Look, the clear message of the movie is about learning to love yourself when facing crises: there’s thematic reasons for characters to stay apart. However, the execution here tends to leave the movie feeling more than a little cold. At one point, Zoe Lister-Jones and Colin Hanks walk by each other in such a dramatic parabolic arcs of social distancing that it is nearly impossible not to be pulled out of the film.
I get it. Talented, funny people wanted to make something during the pandemic and did the best they could. I don’t fault the effort, but I cannot help but things it is going to make the film feel very aged in a short time. I’ll admit that I am starting to become concerned about movies made during the pandemic. We only have a small sample so far, but there’s a feel to this, Songbird, and Locked Down, that’s quite unlike a normal film. Even something extremely well executed like the Euphoria specials feels just a bit off. I guess it should be no surprise that COVID would infect our movies as it has so many aspects of society.
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