Wednesday, June 5, 2013
The story dies at the beginning
If you are asking yourself how someone can spoil a movie that grabbed attention by spoiling itself through its very own title, read on. However, if you don't want to know anything about John Dies at the End, you should stop reading now.
What's the biggest problem you can have if you are a movie called John Dies at the End?
I'd say that it's if John does NOT die at the end.
Actually, I should probably be more specific. John can not die at the end, and that's okay, as long as whether or not John is going to die at the end is a key part of the ending. Otherwise, why even call the movie that?
That's one of a dozen questions I might ask about Don Coscarelli's long-awaited follow-up to Bubba Ho-Tep.
Well, it may not have been long-awaited, but at least it was a long time coming. Bubba Ho-Tep came out over a decade ago in 2002. Coscarelli shouldn't have been stuck in directorial limbo for ten years after that charming little slice of weirdness. After this less-charming and less-weird movie -- which mistakenly thinks it's weirder than Bubba -- I'm not so sure if I'll cry for Don Coscarelli if he can't make his next movie until 2024.
So if John does not die at the end, as I think I've established, why is the movie called that? The easy answer is: Because the book is called that. Why is the book called that? I don't know, I guess I'd have to read it.
The John we are spending so much time fretting about is a secondary character here, kind of the sidekick to the main character, the narrator, a guy who is not Chinese despite being named David Wong. John is David's partner in some kind of supernatural detective agency, but he gets David involved in something far more sinister -- a drug known as Soy Sauce, which allows the takers to see things before they happen ... and time travel ... and possibly survive their own deaths. A bunch of this is more than a little bit unclear, and the rules -- such as they are -- seem to be made up as the movie goes along.
This is what I mean about the story dying at the beginning. Because you can't possibly know it's going to go everywhere and nowhere, for about 20 minutes you're lulled into thinking you're watching a specific thing with a specific set of rules/ideas that may lead to something interesting. What you think you're seeing gets killed off pretty quickly, though, and you soon realize it wasn't going to lead to anything remotely coherent anyway.
But let's get back to John dying or not dying.
John does "die," of sorts, in John Dies at the End. However, it happens at something like the 27-minute mark. In other words, nowhere near the end. And of course, John's death is not fatal to him -- not hardly. This alone would be a problem, even if we're setting aside the whole betrayal of the movie's structure as promised by its title. If you're going to cheekily "ruin" the ending of your own movie in a ploy to get people interested (it definitely worked on me), you should also have the death of this character actually be important in some way. It shouldn't be a moment that barely registers because it a) occurs off-screen, and b) doesn't mean anything like what a death would mean in most movies, because another version of the supposedly dead character begins immediately telepathically talking to the protagonist from another timeline. (He uses a cell phone as his medium at first, so as not to scramble David's brain, but then shifts to speaking to him through a bratwurst, just to prove the whole thing is telepathic.) Pretty soon John shows up again in fully body form and is pretty much around for the rest of the movie.
To call this movie confusing, however, is to give it too much credit. Things that are confusing often have the benefit of being deep or profound, but John Dies at the End is neither. It's a mess of half-formed ideas masquerading as some kind of coherent narrative, but the half-formed ideas themselves are not even all that interesting. If you took the worst impulses of Joss Whedon, David Cronenberg and Sam Raimi and jammed them into a blender, you'd get John Dies at the End. (In fact, Coscarelli makes several rather blunt homages to each of these talented individuals.)
So what does happen at the end?
To be honest, I have already forgotten. I watched this movie on Thursday night, and by Tuesday, I already have blocked out significant portions of it. I do remember that the very end -- when the credits are rolling -- has something to do with John and David traveling forward in time to the year 5189. We find out that it's 5189 because one of them picks up a newspaper on the ground. (Newspapers won't exist by 2189, let alone 5189.) Then some beings show up in some kind of rocket capsules to greet them. Then I think there's an explosion.
What annoys me so much about this movie, other than the way the title pointlessly messes with us, is that it's likely being given a pass by altogether too many people who want to credit it merely for being "weird." As I mentioned earlier, it's not "weird" in the way it clearly wants to be -- it's a very mainstream type of "weird" that is better described as "disorganized," "cheeky" or "lame."
Bubba Ho-Tep was the good kind of "weird." Bubba Ho-Tep features a retirement home being attacked by mummies, defended by a guy who looks a bit like Elvis Presley, who says/believes he's Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell), and a guy who looks nothing like JFK but says/believes he's JFK (Ossie Davis). Beyond that, it's pretty simple, and that's what makes it so damn enjoyable.
John Dies at the End is about drugs and supernatural detectives and time travel and telepathy and imaginary spiders and disembodied arms (there's that Sam Raimi reference) and spirits given a corporeal presence as a bunch of cuts of meat all woven together. There's nothing simple about it, yet there's also nothing good about its exhausting and sloppy "complexity."
Plus, the title lies.