Only three things will survive the apocalypse: cockroaches, Twinkies, and celebrity navel-gazing. This is the ultimate lesson of How It Ends, a new comedy from writer-directors Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein that plays like This Is The End without the self-awareness, or perhaps a better medicated Melancholia. In the absence of the qualities that made those films memorable, what’s left is the self-centered assumption that everyone you know would spend their last day on Earth waiting around for you to show up. That’s what happens throughout the picaresque wander Liza (Lister-Jones) takes through leafy residential Los Angeles, tying up all her emotional loose ends with a parade of her famous friends before a comet kills every living being on the planet.
A title card at the end announces How It Ends as a COVID-era production, but savvy viewers will pick up on this much earlier on. There are the eerily deserted streets, first off, as well as the fact that Liza’s interactions with the eccentric characters she encounters on her walk are all outdoors and six feet apart. Most of these are one-on-one—or rather two-on-one, as Liza is shadowed throughout the film by a corporeal manifestation of her inner child played by Mare Of Easttown’s Cailee Spaeny. Their ultimate destination is a party being thrown by Liza’s pal Mandy (Whitney Cummings), which turns out to be not the unbridled bacchanal one might expect in the hours before worldwide doom but a couple dozen people standing around in socially distanced clusters, chatting and clutching plastic cups like they’re out for one drink before an early call time the next morning. Are all disasters created equal? The film never tries that hard to explain why a comet hurtling toward the Earth produces the same behavior as a pandemic lockdown.
The general lack of panic about the end of the world is ostensibly a running gag, but the comedy is pitched at such a low volume that it’s difficult to hear. It seems safe to assume that Lister-Jones is spoofing herself, or L.A. hipsters more generally, by playing a woman who’s terminally listless and unimpressed. But whether her scene partner is matching her apathetic energy or trying to bounce a more dynamic character off of it, the results are underwhelming. There’s no air in the balloon, so to speak, which means that any laughs that Nick Kroll, Ayo Edebiri, Charlie Day, Glenn Howerton, Paul Downs, Whitney Cummings, Olivia Wilde, Colin Hanks, and Fred Armisen (among others) are able to squeak out of their cameo appearances are despite the setup, not because of it.
Take the scene where Liza recites the lyrics of “You Oughta Know” outside the window of a cheating ex, played by Lamorne Morris. Chuckling at her own joke after she spontaneously bursts out “I’m here to remind you,” Lister-Jones flatly runs through the chorus of the Alanis Morissette hit, before trailing off with a self-deprecating shrug. A beat passes, they look at each other silently, and Morris just moves on with the scene. The same happens when Liza confronts her emotionally stunted dad, played by Bradley Whitford. The two engage in a little cathartic scream therapy; then, as if realizing there’s nowhere else for the conversation to go, she just… leaves.
How It Ends is full of quirky stylistic flourishes—a double-dolly shot à la Spike Lee here, a spontaneous dance sequence there. Some of the scant world-building details, like the scene where a friend of Liza’s describes everything the CIA has declassified on the last day of its existence, are even lightly amusing. But although Lister-Jones seems affable enough, “lightly amusing” is as engaging as How It Ends gets. Mostly, the film is fixated on Liza’s personal damage, eventually leading us down to the beach for a literal therapy exercise where the heroine acknowledges and validates her younger self so she can let go of her past and enjoy her last night on Earth. It’s like someone telling you their dreams: If it’s a person you know intimately and care about, it’s fascinating. But if it’s just some lady—hoofing it through L.A., in mom jeans and a fringed button-up, as the case may be—then who gives a shit?