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Sundance 2021: How It Ends, Mother Schmuckers

For Sundance’s long history of fostering hip films that are distinctly of-the-moment, premiere title “How It Ends” is its first official ensemble pandemic comedy. Written and directed by Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein, the film wears that designation of “First!” like a badge of honor, and it tries to frame 2020's lockdown as a moment of self-reflection. Its construction is unmistakably Sundance-ready, presenting a low-key story of a woman's arrested development with a revolving door of funny faces that includes Nick Kroll, Whitney Cummings, Glenn Howerton, Fred Armisen, Bobby Lee, Lamorne Morris, Paul Scheer and many others. And because the movie is explicitly not about a pandemic—no, it’s about something unavoidable and less stupid, an asteroid careening toward earth—it doesn’t have the cringing forcefulness of recent comedies that have tried to relate to us with Zoom call-filmmaking.

Instead, the movie banks on and benefits from the catharsis of seeing our absurd reality played as a dark joke. Lister-Jones stars in the movie as Liza, a lonely woman with a list of regrets regarding the people she’s known in her life. She initially intends to just do a lot of drugs and go out of this world alone, but then she warms up to the idea of sealing her emotional wounds on this very special day, a beautiful and final day in Los Angeles. Liza has a friend who joins her as she ventures to visit some old friends, lovers, and family members, and it’s her younger self, literally, played by Cailee Spaeny, an idea that fits with the movie’s apocalyptic, outwardly “f**k it” attitude. 

Getting some of its energy from ‘90s slacker movies and “Dude, Where’s My Car?”, the movie follows Liza and her younger self as they amble throughout a sunny and silent Los Angeles, the ease of their pace off-setting the context that the production was indeed made when everyone was indoors. There are no extras or non-cast bodies to be seen in the background, but instead a revolving door of funny people you’re thrilled to see if even just for a couple minutes, making for hit-and-miss comedy based on whether the score is overplaying its quirky comedic cues, or whether the duo's interactions with strangers and friends are charming enough. Sometimes the 85-minute movie benefits by just sitting with its moments, like a calming, five-minute scene where Jones and Spaeny listen to a musician sitting in the middle of the road, playing a song she wrote on guitar.  

Even more so than a lockdown comedy, the script is more specifically a slightly under-baked, existential, walk-and-talk, with Liza interacting with Young Liza. One can even imagine watching “How It Ends” that this must have been the original script, before the lockdown forced Jones and Wein to update their locations. This is where the script gets a bit more ambitious, especially as it creates an emotional arc with Liza symbolically coming to terms with her past, but it’s also where the script gets weirdly overcomplicated. “How It Ends” never really hits the dramatic heights that it hopes it can balance with its broad comedy, and that’s even in spite of the formidable emotional work from Lister-Jones, who can be gleefully goofy in some sequences and then compellingly vulnerable in the next. It's a great vehicle for her, even if the movie is mostly struggling with giving her enough to do. 

“How It Ends” has no grand scheme when it comes to being funny—there’s nothing particularly special about its sense of humor, especially when it abandons Liza's originally exhilarating “OK I guess I'll just get f**ked up” abandon for a narrative that primarily wants to be healing and then sporadically silly. But it does have a whole lot of cameos, and you can’t underestimate how much that helps a movie go from one modestly amusing scene to the next. I also wouldn’t dare give away more famous peoples names than what I did above, but “How It Ends” takes full advantage of how seeing funny people in a relatable, traumatic situation is a comfort itself. The laughs may be fleeting in "How It Ends," but they can be mighty cathartic. 

You can't accuse "Mother Schmuckers" of false advertising, especially if you know that Sundance's Midnight section is the go-to place for comedies that will reveal your breaking point. As part of its tone, and of stating that it doesn’t want to charm everyone in the audience, the Belgian comedy begins with its two leads, brothers Isaachar and Zabulon (played by writer/directors Harpo Guit and Lenny Guit) making a joke about eating fecal matter out of a frying pan. The sequence is total chaos, with their mother Cashmere yelling at them as they joke around and try to put it in each other’s faces, made all the more hectic by handheld camera work and frantic cutting. The scene climaxes with the mother puking, revealing the film’s title. It's all downhill from there. 

Is this what some people felt in the '90s watching "Dumb and Dumber"? I am not sure, and I am frustrated as someone who loves the silliest things, and as someone always in search of new goofs. When a comedy like this is your bag, the 70 minutes can be exhilarating. But for this viewer, the one-note screech of this film was endless. Like a five-minute web series sketch that’s been dragged out, "Mother Schmuckers" goes from one frantic situation to the next, with only its unpredictable plotting giving it any edge: at first it’s about their dog January Jack going missing, and then it’s their mother going missing. The two characters bound around Brussels like how Harpo and Chico Marx were clueless to anyone outside of their own fun. In one joke, the brothers here fall into possession of a gun and run through the city, with onlookers scurrying away. 

“Mother Schmuckers” is more of an experiment with its high-energy comedy, and despite being so blissfully stupid and obnoxious, it never reaches an interesting level of absurdity. With its sketch show-ready filmmaking style (on-the-fly filmmaking and sporadic goofy cuts), the movie throws in different characters who also have the same problem of simply being too cartoonish. It is trying so very hard to be silly and outrageous, but there is so little dimension to it all. Take away the admirable kinetics, and it’s an even more tedious, obvious attempt at lowering the bar. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is an Assistant Editor at RogerEbert.com and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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