Film: John Dies at the End

This was almost an awesome movie. John Dies at the End (2012) sings along cleverly for much of its run, but ultimately fumbles the ball about twenty yards from the end zone. It’s a rewrite or two away from being a great cult film, darkly comic SF; instead it’s merely an amusing romp, occasionally ingenious but all over the map.

David (Chase Williamson) is your typical quirky slacker hero, with a twist: he seems to have bizarre psychic abilities. He uses these to dazzle skeptical feature reporter Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti), then tells Arnie his story in disorienting, time-jumping flashback. Turns out David’s powers started when he and his friend John (Rob Mayes) were dosed by a mysterious alien organism, which acts as a psychotropic drug on humans. The result is to have your perception “unstuck in time,” essentially seeing past, present, and future all at once, an “ocean” rather than a continuum. His story reveals how he gained this power, and how it enabled him to save the world.

The film lurches awkwardly out of the gates, but it really starts to gel when the origin of the alien drug comes into play: how David and a number of others were infected at a keg party, the after-effects of the infection, and the efforts of a no-nonsense detective (the terrific Glynn Turman) to unravel what the hell is going on. The script’s dialogue is rife with skiffy gobbledygook that’s often funny and occasionally poetic, and for a while it looks like there might be a brilliant structural endgame in the works. Alas, it all goes off the rails in the final act. The careful construction of the middle stages is wasted in a silly, sloppy, over-the-top finale that involvesĀ  an alternate universe, a giant alien, and an incongruous subplot involving a world famous mentalist (Clancy Brown) — it’s just a mess.

Which is unfortunate, because until they cross the line, I was really grooving on the film: it’s unpredictable, clever, and tonally odd, and it had the potential to be brilliant. Instead, it’s just a inventive, messy buddy fantasy from the Bill & Ted school: funny, kinetic, but far from great.

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