Sunday, January 27, 2013

John Dies at the End

They come from time to time.  Little novelties of cinema with that aching yearning to be loved, not just loved but worshiped, endlessly quoted with the hope of making fanboys foam at the mouth and to come to the utter defense of.  Films that have a need to achieve a must-have cult fantasy.  Sometimes, of course, that can work despite whatever challenges, either in early reviews or dismal box office numbers...for example Donnie Darko achieved a status few films ever will because the demographic that remained loyal and true to it will likely stay in that bubble of fandom forever.  Sometimes, naturally, it can be a films undoing, and have a stink of desperation.  A mixed, muted, somewhere in the middle reaction will likely be the fate of John Dies at the End, an irony-infused oddity that seeks lust and and nerdy salivation in every turn, but falls short of all-encompassing worship because the story itself-- an amalgam of horror freak shows, fun house effects and droll teen comedy one liners-- is rather half baked, incoherent and seemingly making up its own rules on the spot.  Without even the slightest of sincerity and everything left in quotation marks, it would be easy to reduce John Dies at the End as wannabe, too-cool-for-its-own-good indie, but there's a light charm to it, an inventive sense of play, and genuine charisma in the group of performers.  Writer/director Don Coscarelli has been here before-- he's last feature was Bubba Ho-Tep, a funnily titled bit of absurdity that coasted on its oddball premise and its leading man Bruce Campbell as filler-- and in that regard John Dies at the End may well be a step forward in his seeming quest for eternal geek appreciation.

Dave, played by Chase Williamson-- a handsome smart-alec whose like the slacker, indie-grunge version of Topher Grace-- is a strange young man, with an even stranger pastime/job, or whatever.  Given the power the see dead things, move into various dimensions and given an astute awareness of things to come, mind reading, and various other supernatural-like abilities, all of which is accredited to a magical drug called "soy sauce" that chose him or whatsit, Dave is constantly at odds, but his ironic bent and merciless wit keep him, and the movie, from ever going to deep.  Dave is trying to sell his story, or just merely tell it, or trying to rationalize it in the form of recanting the how of his gifts to journalist Arnie Blondestone (played by Paul Giamatti.)  A flashback, a puzzlement and recurring nightmare, John Dies at the End pleads its case for eternal cult worship as the film shifts from clever readings to cheesy, tongue and check splatter violence to inventively low-brow effects.  The problem lies in a story that fails to truly grasp anything much at all.  We learn that Dave inherited his gifts and burdens from the titular John (Rob Mayes), a high school mate who got into "the sauce" after a meeting with a mysterious soothsayer.  What leads in an intense recollection of some otherworldly gobbledegook of apocalyptic proportions, all of which staged with a smirky grin, and cast aside more often than not by nonsensical oddball tangents-- oh look, a dog driving a truck, or a bratwurst working as a mobile phone.

One could discredit John Dies at the End on storyboarding logic, but there's a few guilty pleasures that make the film, if not the eternal cult fantasy it wishes to be than a pleasurable and a mostly agreeable slight of hand.  Williamson and Mayes are charming performers, and their off-kilter touches and clever line readings are, if nothing else, than nicely calibrated in such nonsense.  Giamatti, who works as audience skeptic, works as nifty piece of stunt casting, giving a slight nudge of gravitas to a work of immense cheese, and finally, Coscrelli is certainly a cheerfully anarchic filmmaker, one with an inventive sense of play and mayhem, only needing a structure to refine it.  There's a slight smidgeon of joy and chaos to the frantic sequences of madness, it just feels as thought John Dies at the End sputters out before it can reach the punchline.  B-

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