Canadian director Jonathan Sobol writes and directs this comedy about three sons who discover they may only have days to live after their father volunteers them for a drug trial, then promptly gambles away the settlement. A triple-whammy bucket list comedy follows, but every time Sobol tries to find the heart of black comedy, it just feels dim. Harvey Keitel, Jason Jones and Scott Caan star.
Starring: Harvey Keitel, Scott Caan, Paulo Costanzo, Jared Keeso, J.K. Simmons, Jason Jones, Tricia Helfer
Rating: Two and a half stars out of five
There is a surprising degree of novelty watching American stars handle Canadian money, and it proves one of the more memorable pleasures in A Beginner's Guide to Endings -- an ambitious, good-looking but dramatically shallow effort from Canuck writer-director Jonathan Sobol.
A yarn that begins with the quirky device of a failed suicide, this "Guide" tries to find the bittersweet pulse of failed family dynamics.
Much in the same way Sissy Spacek walked catatonically through the openings scenes of Crimes of the Heart with a noose around her neck, we watch Harvey Keitel drift through the initial scenes of this aspiring black comedy wearing a noose, and a tree branch.
Offering up the plot-moving exposition as he tours the edge of Niagara Falls, we learn Keitel is Duke White, a gambling addict who just never did anything right. Though good-hearted and kind, Duke's been a big-time flop at just about everything -- particularly in his role as father to his three sons.
Without realizing the potential harm of a drug trial, and constantly hungry for cash, Duke volunteers all three boys Cal (Scott Caan), Jacob (Paulo Costanzo) and Nuts (Jason Jones) to take an untried medication.
When it turns out the drug causes irreversible cardiac damage, Duke receives a legal package containing huge cheques for each of his boys. Instead of being the good daddy he wants to be, however, Duke decides to hit the track and "strategically bet" the settlement on the ponies.
Things don't go as planned, leading to Duke's suicide bid that kicks off this rambling and only moderately funny misadventure.
First-time feature writer-director Sobol's aims are clear and identifiable in the opening salvos that feature quirky art direction, Canadiana props (including a rather fetching moose print) and deadpan zingers: He wants to make an offbeat charmer, a Wes Anderson-styled piece of slick that feels cool, but also has soul.
Sobol attempts to mix the lights of farce with the blacks of family dysfunction, but instead of conjuring stark dramatic moments, this dark comedy just feels dim.
The look and mood are seductively seedy, but there's something missing in the mix and it's a palpable sense of purpose.
Once Duke offers up his guilty confession of parental neglect and personal gain, we flash to the reading of his will, where we watch his three kids gather around Uncle Pal (J. K. Simmons).
It's in this scene they learn the truth of their medical trial and discover they probably don't have too long to live, resulting in the rest of the movie's plot: Each kid creates his own bucket list, and spends the rest of the film trying to complete the inventory of desired experience.
From marriage to muscle cars, the boys indulge their fantasies believing it could all end immediately.
Because the movie lacks the hardcore sincerity it needed to make us weep, the bucket list device feels like a flat beer left behind by the Hangover franchise.
We need to believe in the human dimensions of the piece and for that, you really need believable characters.
These guys are all kind of sweet and funny -- particularly Jason Jones, who plays "Nuts," a boxer who wins by taking punches below the belt -- but they don't ever feel entirely real.
Everyone feels like a sketch comedy concoction, and while the cast finds moments of inspiration, the whole piece never settles into a sympathetic groove because it's skating on a thick layer of emotional sarcasm.
Sobol seems too concerned with establishing jokes -- such as wearing boxing shorts that read "White Power" in Detroit, or a bimbo who racks up the body count -- to really develop the emotional side of the story with any credibility.
A Beginner's Guide to Endings is still an accomplished piece of work that suggests stylish potential, but in many ways, it could have worn the alternate title: Family Dysfunction for Dummies.