Some might accuse "A Beginner's Guide to Endings" of trying too hard or being derivative of the 90s "Tarantino-esque" style that so many movies of that decade and those to follow tried to imitate. On the most superficial, surface level, such a complaint could be levied, but underneath there's the makings of a hidden gem, that sadly, struggles to find its footing and in the process, doesn't resonate much beyond providing a basic 90-minute stretch of entertainment. The film is helmed by writer/director Jonathon Sobol, who definitely deserves a hand for assembling a cast of some very notable faces and those that may seem familiar, even if the names attached escape memory.
Although it starts very heavy handedly, with a dejected Duke White (Harvey Keitel) walking around city streets at night, tree limb in hand with a noose around his neck, once we get past quickly paced exposition that, really does try too hard, "A Beginner's Guide to Endings" slowly begins to reveal its heart and soul: the family unit. Following Duke's suicide, Duke's sons Cal (Scot Caan), Jacob (Paulo Costanzo), Edward, aka "Nuts" (Jason Jones), Juicebox (Jared Kesso) and Todd (Siam Yu) gather as Duke's brother, Pal (JK Simmons), a preacher, gives the morally fluid Duke the best send-off he can think of, resulting in a eulogy courtesy Lynyrd Skynyrd. As trite and, I dare say, heavy-handed as this sounds on paper, the film makes it work, largely due to the instant chemistry of the cast, who are all selected to represent a wide spectrum of personalities.
Duke's death merely serves as a catalyst for the film's early twist: when they were younger, Duke took money to subject Cal, Jacob, and Edward to medical testing against their knowledge and they are both expected to die very soon (hence Duke's cowardly suicide). The fact is naturally delivered during the reading of a will, and naturally, all three brothers set off to live their final days to the fullest, resulting in family bonding and fixing things long neglected. The film's screenplay slows down once the revelation is laid upon the audiences doorstep and sets out to show a stark contrast in how each of the trio handles impending doom; it shouldn't shock anyone that the individual approaches to mortality are often 180-dgreee changes from their normal personalities, and in the case of Cal and Jacob, the result is merely tolerable; the unexpected bright spot is Edward's character arc, due in no small part to Jason Jones' film stealing performance as a never-was boxer struggling to make everything right in his own clumsy way. Jones, who many may remember from "The Daily Show" but not recognize here, is reason enough to give the movie a whirl and while, like the rest of the script, his underlying motives aren't original, the execution and heart of the performance is strong enough to overshadow the uninspired.
By and large, "A Beginner's Guide to Endings" treads no new ground whatsoever, it limps into a somewhat nosy, brisk finale, and the character of Cal is only tolerable by Scott Caan's skill at playing such stock characters. The film is not without genuine laughs, many thanks to the always reliable J.K. Simmons, nor without a few genuinely moving moments. The film itself is handsomely shot and put together, even despite a few hallmarks of being low budget. It's hard to put a finger on what single element holds this from being a minor, overlooked gem, and perhaps that itself is the answer. A small number of small issues leaves "A Beginner's Guide to Endings" a merely serviceable, minor comedy.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer sports thoroughly average detail with some minor to moderate digital noise/grain and light, but noticeable compression artifacts. Colors are strong and consistent, whereas contrast levels vary, mostly between exterior and interior shots. A light bit of edge-enhancement rounds out the noteworthy, but still minor defects in the transfer.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 English audio track is definitely not quiet with a forceful mix on the score; dialogue and effects feel a little dialed down but by no means are muddled. The overall dynamic range of the track is hit-or-miss, perhaps intentionally as it only really shines when the film goes over-the-top. English SDH subtitles are included.
Two extras, "A Beginner's Guide to Directing" and "A Beginner's Guide to 'A Beginner's Guide to Endings''" are 10 to 15 minute featurettes that provide some shallow insight into the production and are mostly promotional in nature.
While it has a few strong performances and genuinely entertaining moments "A Beginner's Guide to Endings" just isn't fresh enough to find itself labeled "overlooked." If you're in the mood for some easy laughs and some earnest moments of introspection, give it a shot. Rent It.