Jonathan Sobol’s directorial debut feels like some sort of unholy cross between Snatch and The Royal Tenenbaums. It’s a dysfunctional family comedy with genre movie underpinnings that attempts to find a sweet spot between violent dark comedy and a one-liner packed quirk fest. That combination of elements is just as odd and mismatched as you’d think and is ultimately both the main strength and weakness of the movie. Scenes awkwardly crash into each other with conflicting tones that feel like they belong to two completely different movies, yet watching Sobol try to pull off the balancing act via relentless pacing, a grab bag of stylistic tricks picked up over a lifetime of movie geekery, and a pretty fantastic cast is undeniably entertaining. It might not all work, but the passages that do are strong enough to make the whole thing worthwhile. You’ll probably come out feeling somewhat battered from the slingslot nature of the film’s tonal shifts, but better that than exiting the movie bored by something you’ve seen too many times before.
The movie opens with Harvey Keitel’s deadbeat dad Duke White walking down the Niagara Falls strip with a noose around his neck tied to a broken tree limb held under his arm. So, he clearly botched one suicide attempt and has plans for another. We soon find out why via montage and flashbacks. A degenerate gambler and father to five sons who he barely cared for, Duke finally goes one step to far even for him. A few years prior, he had signed three of his sons up to test experimental medication that now seems to have drastically shortened their life expectancy. As compensation, each dying son was given a check for $100,000, which Duke quickly lost at the track trying to win them an even bigger fortune. That was enough for it to be suicide time and the sons all find out about their fate at the will reading held by Duke’s priest brother Pal (JK Simmons, who instantly makes any film better just by showing up).
Duke’s three kids are each hit pretty hard by the news and react in their own insane panicky way. The oldest son Nuts (The Daily Show’s Jason Jones, almost unrecognizable behind a powerful mustache) decides to revive his boxing career despite the years and pounds that have added up since his glory days. When he realizes that he probably won’t last long in a big fight, he trains his cartoon-character-stupid brother Juicy (Jared Keeso) instead, knowingly sending him into the ring to be pummeled. Cal (Scott Caan) inherited his father’s serial dating ways and decides it’s time to finally settle down, but unfortunately he decides to hook up with an old flame Miranda (Battlestar Galactica’s Tricia Helfer) who has developed a reputation for wedding men who die in myst/erious ways. Then there’s Jacob (Paulo Costanzo) the one responsible kid in the family who reacts to his impending death by quitting his job and embarking on a bucket list of irresponsibility, buying cars, engaging in dangerous stunts, and wearing ridiculous costumes along with his kid brother Todd (Siam Yu). Sobol weaves between the stories at a rapid pace, mixing violent dark comedy with gentle gags and slapstick before trying to pull it all together with a magical grand coincidence ending that almost works and is at least ambitious.
For the most part the film lives and dies by the cast and what they are able to do with their screentime. Jason Jones probably fairs best, getting laughs out his usual improv timing while also playing the character surprisingly straight at times and proving to be a far more capable, multi-dimensional actor than he’s typically allowed to show. Scott Caan does his immature, bickering smooth-talker thing from the Ocean’s Eleven series. At first his character feels like a one-note afterthought until he gets involved with the psychotic Miranda (played with sadistic/seductive glee by Helfer) and ends up in a hilarious board n’ nail fight with her 7-foot tall hyper-articulate biker ex-boyfriend (just as absurd and hilarious as it sounds and possibly the comedic hightlight of the movie). Keitel doesn’t get much screen time with his character being dead and all, but having an actor of his stature in the role helps make his presence felt throughout the film. The only character who doesn’t really work is Costanzo’s uptight guy on the rampage. The performance is fine, but the character is a one-note cliché and his irresponsible adventures never register the laughs they should.
The hit-to-miss ratio of the jokes in A Beginners Guide To Endings isn’t particularly high overall and generally speaking the laughs come more from the performances than the script (let’s face it, JK Simmons could make being diagnosed with cancer funny). However, Sobol makes up for the lack of laughs with relentless pacing to ensure his movie is never boring even when the jokes aren’t landing. The earlier comparison to Snatch is apt because like Guy Ritchie, Sobol never stages a scene without some sort of editing gimmick or moment of show off cinematography. The director mixes film stocks, employs split screens, piles montages within montages, and empties out the bag of stylistic tricks he’s wanted to try over the years. At times it feels like overkill, but the tone of the film is so heightened that for the most it’s oddly appropriate. This is definitely a flawed film that is never quite as funny or clever as it thinks it is. But thankfully, Sobol’s kitchen sink approach is at least funny and clever enough to be an entertaining debut and a goofball ride through crime and indie comedy tropes. If the director can pull together a cast this strong and make a production this slick his first time out, then he’s officially a Canadian filmmaking talent to watch at the very least. First movies can often be overrun with ideas by filmmakers wanting to try everything once in case they aren’t allowed to step behind the camera again. If Sobol calms down and gets more focused during his next time at bat, the guy could end up with a pretty damn entertaining flick.