DIRECTED BY: : Zoe Lister-Jones & Daryl Wein / CAST: Zoe Lister-Jones, Cailee Spaeny, Whitney Cummings

With one of the more on-the-nose films to come out of the pandemic, husband and wife team Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones both write and direct How It Ends, gathering together an assembly of comedic actors to play parts in a story about an asteroid heading towards Earth.

Leaving behind any of the typical rioting and chaos that would likely transpire—at least somewhere—with the news of the end of the world, How It Ends is able to hone in on the bucket list aspect of its premise. Liza (Lister-Jones) has decided, as many here do, to spend her final day alive righting wrongs and making amends with people from her past. After her car gets stolen, she and her younger self (Cailee Spaeny) traverse the Hollywood Hills by foot, where they come across all kinds of eccentric characters. Some are performing stand-up comedy to no one, some are busking for no one, while others are zorbing down an empty street. Despite getting nearly 200 texts to start the day, the fateful world she’s living in feels void of people. At the nd of the night, Liza’s friend Mandy (Whitney Cummings) is hosting a party, at which everyone will expectedly die together (and Pauly Shore will be there!).

Often finding the joke within the joke, the movie plays out like a series of sketches, where one audacious scene after another showcases the writers’—and performers’—willingness to take risks and try new things. Liza and her best friend, Alay (Olivia Wilde), make amends after years of not speaking (it turns out Liza didn’t believe that Alay could see into the future), but their dialogue plays out as a series of surprisingly distinct interruptions where both characters talk over each other for half of the conversation. Another notable detail in the story is the sudden ability for everyone to see Liza’s younger self, who had typically only been visible to Liza.

The very concept of a personified younger self opens up new rules and ideas about the emotional capacity for a character like that. Does she feel things that a normal person would? Does her arc curve in the same way that we would expect a human character’s to? Can younger selves usually see other younger selves? Lister-Jones and Wein are somehow able to connect this concept to the main premise in a couple of ways so that it doesn’t feel too out-ofleft-field. And there’s still some more exploring that could be done, although the lack of established guidelines very much fits into this sporadic universe that’s been crafted. At one point we briefly meet another “younger self” character played by Fred Armisen, but the idea ends almost as soon as it begins.

Thriving as a source for humor, How It Ends gives itself a few opportunities to expand upon the vast world that it implies, yet ultimately falls short in that regard. With the streets understandably empty during the daytime, the party at night never showcases a reunion of all of these eccentric personalities that Liza had come across earlier that day.

Most of the cast’s success really hinges on that of the bits they’re partaking in. For instance, Charlie Day and Mary Elizabeth Ellis—both typically very funny people—play two new age hippies who get a little too long of a comedic rope, and it doesn’t really work. Whereas Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer play bickering neighbors, the former of which doesn’t believe that the world is really ending and tries to get the latter to rinse out his recycling bin, and the exchange is tighter and more realized.

Characters lament their pasts, verbalize their regrets, and even talk seriously about the afterlife. Just because life as they know it is about to end doesn’t mean that they can’t face the looming news with COMPOSURE.

Wein and Lister-Jones keep the tone on an edge between bouncy and weird, making it easier for the audience to better accept anything that can—and will—happen. And going along with the less-pastel Wes Anderson-esque framing and palette, the quirky, expressive musical score by Ryan Miller is appropriately adaptable as well.

While the silliness almost never ceases, the idea of the end of theEarth is treated with frank austerity. Characters lament their pasts, verbalize their regrets, and even talk seriously about the afterlife. Just because life as they know it is about to end doesn’t mean that they can’t face the looming news with composure. Despite the surrealistic approach that the writer-director team sticks with, there’s still some truth and realism to how the people in their world are handling themselves. Perhaps more idealistic because of the anarchist outliers that have been scrubbed for the purpose of this iteration, those who remain live out their final hours exactly how people in this self-absorbed L s Angeles bubble would—which may very well be the truest satire of it all.

Outside of the insouciant ad-lib fest and comical what-ifs, there’s still an intrinsic emotional pathos that’s unavoidable with a story like this, showing how people are still tethered to these habitual inhibitions and insecurities, even though they no longer serve a purpose considering their future on Earth won’t exist in a few hours. Yet the movie rejects the trite, artificial, feel-good facade for more of an accepting and surprisingly hopeful attitude. Never undermining any of the emotion, How It Ends always maintains its poignancy to at least some degree, with both ListonJones and Spaeny able to manage any tonal shifts that come their way. Liza’s estranged mother is played by Helen Hunt, who steals the film on a dramatic level as the only one who never kowtows to the flippancy.

More sketch comedy than it is movie, How It Ends still justifies its randomness with its premise and churns out inventive and ballsy comedic ideas, even if hey don’t always work. In one of the first notable results of the pentup creativity caused by a global pandemic, the film is commedia dell’arte in the purest form, a true expression of deliberated concepts unclouded by distraction. And as one character puts it so well, “I think everyone’s just operating on a higher frequency or something.”

About the Author: Ethan Brehm

Ethan Brehm

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