Wednesday, November 14, 2012

PFF: John Dies At the End Review

David Wong has a story to tell, a story about a sentient drug called "soy sauce" that opens the doors of perception to other realities. One of those other realities has plans for our world, though, and only David's friend John has the key to stop them. Unfortunately, you know what happens to John.

Another film on my must-see list, this one didn't thrill me as much as Everything Will Be OK. John Dies At the End is the follow-up to Don Coscarelli's adaptation of Bubba Ho-Tep, the story of Elvis, who hadn't died, and President Kennedy, whose skin was dyed black, living in a rest home fighting off a redneck mummy that's killing the other residents. That is about as wacky a premise as you can have for a story and that movie delivers, but, moreso, it unexpectedly explores aging and the melancholic inevitability of death. Bubba Ho-Tep turned out to be a thoughtful meditation on life choices and their consequences with a horror-comedy premise stretched over it, a film that mixes high-art with B-movie aesthetics and one that I would recommend to any person any time.

John Dies At the End, not so much.

The movie is not a bad flick nor unenjoyable. In fact, it delivers on many levels doing things that I've been wanting to see in monster movies for ages. The characters are somewhat hip and ironic and respond to their situations--even the most dramatic--with an appropriate detachment, with almost an awareness of being in a monster movie set-up. And that is fun. "You are the prophesied saviors of our world!" "Great. We'll be right back. [whispered]Screw these guys." I loved that and the opening of the movie promises something along the lines of a sarcastic Scooby-Doo.

And then it just doesn't deliver.

There weren't exactly continuity issues, but there was a level of confusion to the movie itself. The frame narrative is David telling Arnie, a reporter, all about soy sauce: how he first discovered the drug, what it did to him, and the ultimate adventure on which it led him and his friend John. By the end of the movie, though, I don't know why David is trying to tell Arnie the story. Plus there's a flashback at the beginning of their conversation that takes place after the events of the core story that doesn't really tie in to anything else. The movie, frankly, felt like the pilot for a TV show on HBO or Showtime--a show I would totally watch, but that didn't make for a cohesive movie.

Now maybe I missed something. Coscarelli's not new to the game and the movie is carefully constructed--it moves at a steady clip and is constantly entertaining and surprising--but it felt like there were plot holes and short cuts that didn't need to be there (how David ends up taking his first dose of soy sauce for instance). And maybe it says something of the movie itself that my first impulse is to lay the fault for any sense of dissatisfaction with me, but it just felt a little flat.

Much of the movie was very satisfying. The central plot of John and David being exposed to the soy sauce and then being roped into a plan to save the Earth from a Cthonic horror from a parallel dimension was lots of fun and Paul Giamatti as the reporter, well, Paul Giamatti ever, in anything, is a delight. The movie is a lot of fun, a total popcorn-muncher and great for a Saturday afternoon, but it didn't meet the expectations set by Bubba Ho-Tep. Were I judging the film exclusively on its own merits, it might have rated higher with me, I might have overlooked or simply missed the things that tripped me up, but Coscarelli is so good that I find it hard not to hold him to the standard he established. John Dies At the End is good, but it could have been better.

3.5/5 stars

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