Dispatches From Direct-To-DVD Purgatory is a periodic check-in on what’s going on in the world of movies that didn’t make it to theaters.
At a characteristically melodramatic moment in A Beginner’s Guide To Endings, Scott Caan is faced with a brutal choice: He must either chop off a romantic rival’s handcuffed hand with a machete or risk being vivisected by an oncoming train. Tracing back the steps leading to this moment provides a good illustration of why the film is such an overstuffed, underwhelming boondoggle in spite of the impressive talent assembled.
The path to this tricky decision begins with Caan learning that his gambling-addicted ne’er-do-well father (Harvey Keitel, whose working-class rasp takes on a strangely Danny DeVito-like quality here) enrolled his three eldest sons (Caan, Jason Jones, and Paulo Costanzo) in a medical research experiment for $2,000 apiece, only half of which he saw fit to actually give the boys, the rest of which he pocketed as a finder’s fee. Unbeknownst to Caan, Jones, and Costanzo, a massive class-action lawsuit was filed against the makers of the experimental drug the sons tested, and each of the men was awarded $100,000, all of which Keitel promptly lost in gambling binges. It turns out that the drug wasn’t just risky or dangerous; it was downright fatal, and all three men are slated to die imminently. Keitel can’t live with himself or the guilt, so he commits suicide early in the film.
Being confronted with his looming mortality in such a dramatic fashion causes Caan to reconsider his womanizing, bed-hopping ways and propose to the only woman he’s ever truly loved, a kooky badass played by Tricia Helfer of Battlestar Gallactica fame. The problem? The clearly unhinged Helfer is notorious for being a black widow, with three dead husbands in the grave.
I hope you are all still following me, because we’re still only about halfway finished with the explanation of how Caan found himself in such a predicament. Upon being reunited with old flame Caan, Helfer tells him that he better steer clear, as she has a 7-foot-tall boyfriend who likes to carry around a machete. He assumes she’s bluffing, but it turns out that she actually does have a 7-foot-tall, machete-wielding boyfriend that she recently broke up with who nevertheless informs Caan that he must subject himself to a wheel of punishments for daring to have designs on Helfer.
Caan spins the wheel of punishment and ends up having to battle the massive ex-boyfriend using only boards with nails in them as weapons. Caan assumes his death is at hand, but just when it appears that all is lost, Jones tosses a solid silver bar out of the window of a nearby car that—in the kind of uncanny coincidence screenwriting classes abhor as the most egregious form of hackery—hits the big guy in the head and knocks him unconscious.
Caan cannot believe his luck; nor can anyone else, in the film itself or in the audience. But when the big guy wakes up, he pulls out a pair of handcuffs and cuffs himself to Caan and a railroad track so that he must choose between slicing off a man’s hand or risking certain death himself. Why? Well, as the giant bad guy explains, he didn’t really think too far ahead.
That’s enough strained wackiness for an entire slate of Sundance movies, but it only constitutes about a fifth of the arbitrary zaniness found in A Beginner’s Guide To Endings. The film is a testament to the futility and foolishness of not quitting while either ahead or behind, of adding one shrill contrivance onto another until a movie is an avalanche of bad ideas hurtling madly into oblivion.
A Beginner’s Guide To Endings’ commitment to trying too goddamned hard begins with its title and extends to every aspect of the film. Endings opens with Keitel committing suicide after introducing us to his unlikely clan: womanizer Caan, hard-headed, incompetent boxer Jones, model citizen and good son Costanzo, Jared Keeso as a seemingly mentally challenged man-child, and Siam Yu as the youngest of the bunch, a small Asian child who’s less a character than a sight gag. J.K. Simmons rounds out the obscenely overqualified cast as Keitel’s brother.
Costanzo, Caan, and Jones all deal with news of their impending deaths in radically different ways. As I laboriously explicated earlier, Caan discovers the joys and insanity of committing to the wrong woman, when not attempting to disengage himself from nail-and-board fights and entanglements involving handcuffs and railroad tracks.
Jones (whose nickname is “Nuts” because Keitel would fix every fight by having the opposing fighter hit Jones squarely in the testicles, thereby ensuring a forfeiture and technical victory for his son) tries to figure his way out of a $20,000 debt, while the previously buttoned-up Costanzo uses the newfound knowledge that he no longer has anything to lose as an excuse to take a rapid-fire spin through a bucket list of things he’s always wanted to do before he died.
As you might imagine, this bucket list doubles as a veritable encyclopedia of irritating independent-movie eccentricities. As his own personal Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Costanzo lifts himself right out of his depressive funk by buying a sweet-ass muscle car, getting a tattoo (or at least attempting to before growing squeamish and quickly giving up), smacking a hated old foe, dressing up like Elvis, and climactically hurling himself over Niagara Falls.
The Elvis costume is a particularly exhausted staple of self-satisfied independent and independent-style films: Before I settled on A Beginner’s Guide To Endings, I had to chose between it and Guns, Girls And Gambling as the subject of this week’s column. (Don’t worry: I’ll write up Guns, Girls And Gambling next week.) Coincidentally or otherwise, Guns, Girls And Gambling features Tony Cox as “Little Person Elvis,” Chris Kattan as “Gay Elvis,” and Gary Oldman as just plain “Elvis.” Believe me, I’m just as excited to explore its depths as you are.
After worshiping nakedly at the church of Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino throughout, A Beginner’s Guide To Endings grasps unashamedly yet disingenuously for profundity in a closing bit of narration that tries and fails to impart a satisfying emotional arc on all its free-floating, random nuttiness.
If this film were a person, it would wear a Fez, oversized gold sunglasses with “TCB” emblazoned on the side, a Hawaiian shirt, Bermuda shorts, and outsized platform shoes. It would smoke clove cigarettes from a pearl cigarette holder. In other words, it would be an aggregation of kitschy, tongue-in-cheek affectations in desperate search of a human being.
A Beginner’s Guide To Endings is so oppressively wacky in its flagrant disregard for even the fuzziest notion of plausible human behavior, even its quirks have quirks. It’s only fitting that a painfully contrived, artificial comedy about men facing their imminent demise is DOA from its very first frame.
Just how bad is it? Oh, it’s fucking awful.