Wednesday, January 25, 2012

#Sundance Review: "John Dies at the End"

Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival

It’s been a full decade since director Don Coscarelli released Bubba Ho-Tep, one of the most enjoyably batshit-insane pictures in recent memory. (It concerns an old, fat Elvis and a black JFK battling an ancient Egyptian mummy. Look, just rent it.) One could safely assume that, in that decade, Mr. Coscarelli came up with an abundance of concepts and ideas that he wanted to try out. The trouble with his new film, John Dies at the End, is that he appears to have decided to just smash them all in—coherence and tempo be damned.

Not that it isn’t worth seeing. It’s got a bright, gaudy pop style, and there’s something almost exhilarating about his frenetic approach in the first half or so; the film is episodic (and peculiar) enough that we’re not sure where the hell it’s going, but there’s a weird kick to how utterly untethered it is. I’d summarize the events if such a thing were possible, but the story (Coscarelli wrote the screenplay, adapting David Wong’s novel) is all over the damn place, a cluttered tale of street drugs, altered realities, out-of-body experiences, dark forces, and inter-dimensional travel—illustrated by a steady stream of gooey creatures, exploding heads, and shit blowing up real good. Oh, and Paul Giamatti.

Credit where due: the picture is endless inventive, the filmmaker hurling headlong through his trippy, weirdo mindscape, though the audience gets exhausted a lot sooner than he does. He’s got a loopy sense of humor and a good visual sense, even if some of the technique is a little sloppy (do yourself a favor and just don’t pay attention to Giamatti’s notebook in his first scene; I don’t usually get hung up on continuity, but good Lord).

The performers do their best, and most come off well—Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes are engaging leads, and Giamatti is, y’know, Giamatti. The great Glynn Turman gets some richly-deserved laughs; he comes on like a straight man, then lets the zonkiness of the affair crack him. One can see why Coscarelli nabbed respected character actors like these; he’s clearly a director who gets off just as much on his loopy dialogue and oddball situations as the gloopy, bloody slug creatures.

But it’s ultimately just too much. Coscarelli and Wong’s narrative keeps getting bigger, weirder, and ultimately entirely out of his control. It unravels entirely in the third act, and the bad CG of the climax doesn’t help—this stuff looks cheap even by B-movie standards. Even after that, the filmmaker keeps shoveling in more stuff, clear up through the end credits, by which time most of the audience has just given up. John Dies at the End has flashes of exuberance and wit, and its manic comic momentum carries it a long way. But it’s just too shambling and undisciplined to keep its audience’s interest.

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