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‘How It Ends’ is a Warm, if Overly Cutesy, Apocalypse Comedy

From Sundance 2021, we review Zoe Lister-Jones and husband Daryl Wein’s quirky comedy about the end of the world.
Sundance 2021: How It Ends
Sundance Institute
By  · Published on January 31st, 2021

What if we knew when the world was going to end? How would we spend our last day? These questions are nothing new in terms of hypotheticals, but they’re two of the questions asked in Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein‘s affable How It Ends, an existential, apocalypse comedy that gives Liza (Lister-Jones) until the end of the day before an asteroid is expected to collide with our planet and destroy Earth.

In the time between waking up and this Melancholia-adjacent obliteration of life, Liza spends her last moments traversing Los Angeles on foot alongside a meta-physical version of her younger self (played by Cailee Spaeny), the eccentric presence of whom is attributed to “everyone operating on a higher frequency” in the face of the final day at hand.

Leading up to the last party she’ll ever attend, Liza and her younger self attempt to make amends with friends, family, and former lovers while encountering a plethora of eclectic strangers (played by a who’s-who of familiar comedic faces) all dealing with the collective, impending doom in their own way.

Shot like a sitcom and nothing if not obvious in its tackling of self-realization, How It Ends is nonetheless comforting in its depiction of an idealized version of the end of the world — a panacea to the worst-case climate change scenarios that now haunt our real-world dreams.

In the face of her inescapable demise, and also that of everyone she knows and loves, Liza and her younger self embark on a days-long journey towards forgiveness and self-acceptance, attempting to right these wrongs. When her initial plan of getting as high as possible is thwarted by a man (Nick Kroll) buying out all the weed at her local dispensary, she spends her last day with an amalgamation of loved ones and strangers.

They include the quirky younger version of an elderly man she meets by chance (Fred Armisen), two feuding neighbors (Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer), her absent father (Bradley Whitford), an estranged friend (Olivia Wilde), and a former lover (Lamorne Morris), all of whom act like spiritual guides leading Liza to the afterlife.

It’s all meant to be a lead-up to the end-of-the-world party being thrown that night by Liza’s friend Mandy (Whitney Cummings) — until it is rumored that Mandy spectacularly overdosed on ketamine and called the party off. Suddenly, Liza is forced to spend her final day with herself. Something utterly unthinkable.

During her quest to make peace with those outside herself, Liza struggles with the concept of being self-actualized before she ever got a chance to. It creates a unique kind of question to ask within the framework of the familiar “end of days” scenario: if given this time to prepare before an exact point at which your life will end, what happens to those of us who never got the chance to grow into ourselves?

If faced with a deadly impending reality that is not quite yet imminent, an opportunity is presented in which we have enough time to reflect on who we became, and yet there is still not enough time to fix all of our mistakes and become a fully realized person before we go.

The narrative wants to literalize this self-realization in the most tangible way possible, which ultimately robs it of depth and leads the story to a bit of a wish-fulfillment conclusion. The final scene is shot and presented in such an ordinary manner that it makes me wonder if they didn’t quite know how to end the film.

How It Ends is also operating on a pseudo-surrealist level that cannot escape the trappings of its own sitcom atmosphere. With its flat, washed-out cinematography reminiscent of something of a lesser streaming series, and its insistence on allowing every big-name actor to get their own five-minute bit whether its funny or not, it’s not difficult to assume where this film might end up in a few months time for general audience consumption.

But there is a tender story underneath the studio comedy trappings and dull atmosphere, and it’s hard not to watch How It Ends and wish this warm, existential tale of learning to love both yourself and being alone could have been executed with a little more tact.

Still, enchanting chemistry between Lister-Jones and Spaeny and the utter delight of the small moments given to actors like Armisen, Bobby Lee, and three It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia actors activates a rush of serotonin to my little monkey brain. And it is even more difficult to ignore the idea that How It Ends acts as a best-case scenario for the end of the world — quick and painless and where we are all given enough time to spend short moments with the people we love, and maybe the ones we didn’t love quite enough.

There is something exceedingly comforting in our time of overwhelming grief and pessimism towards the future about the idea of spending each moment we have left preciously, whether we have many of these moments left or not. How It Ends is not the best film about the end of the world, but it manages to be one of the more reassuring,

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Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer with bylines at Polygon, Little White Lies, Thrillist, The Film Stage, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and more. She runs a bi-monthly newsletter called That's Weird. Follow her and her big beautiful brain on Twitter: @justbrizigs.