Review: ‘How It Ends’ (2021), starring Zoe Lister-Jones and Cailee Spaeny

July 21, 2021

by Carla Hay

Zoe Lister-Jones and Cailee Spaeny in “How It Ends” (Photo courtesy of MGM/American International Pictures)

“How It Ends” (2021)

Directed by Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the comedy film “How It Ends” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Hours before an impending apocalypse, a woman in her 30s sees a physical manifestation of her 15-year-old self, and together they visit people they know to say their goodbyes in case they don’t survive the apocalypse. 

Culture Audience: “How It Ends” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in “mumblecore” comedies that are self-consciously quirky in a way that will annoy some viewers.

Zoe Lister-Jones and Cailee Spaeny in “How It Ends” (Photo courtesy of MGM/American International Pictures)

The smugly oddball “How It Ends” looks and sounds like it could have been a pilot episode for a mumblecore sitcom rather than a compelling cinematic experience. In this time-wasting apocalyptic comedy, the end of the world is depicted as Los Angeles hipsters and weirdos acting as annoying as possible and thinking that they’re hilarious. You can see that on Hollywood Boulevard for free. You don’t need to pay money to see that in a movie as dull as this one.

Husband-and-wife duo Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein wrote and directed “How It Ends,” and it looks exactly like what it is: A movie that was rushed into production during the pre-vaccine COVID-19 pandemic, just so the filmmakers could brag about how they braved the pandemic to make this movie. Unfortunately, not enough time seems to have been spent on developing an interesting story for this repetitive and mostly empty-headed film.

“How It Ends” takes place in Los Angeles, just hours before an apocalypse is supposed to destroy the world. It’s never explained how people know the exact hour that this apocalypse is going to hit. But the characters in this movie are just way too calm about it, and they go about their lives as if it’s just another sunny day in California.

At least half of this movie just shows the two main characters walking from house to house, as they say goodbye to friends and assorted loved ones before the end of the world happens. Expect to see repetitive shots of people sauntering down a street as if they’re just out for a pleasant stroll before the apocalypse. And everyone they talk to just happens to be “quirky.”

The two main characters in the story are supposed to be the same person at different stages in her life. The movie opens with protagonist Liza (played by Lister-Jones), who’s in her 30s and with an unknown occupation, in her home on the morning before the apocalypse. There’s a teenage girl (played by Cailee Spaeny) jumping up and down on Liza’s bed.

Liza checks her voice messages and finds out that her friend Mandy (played by Whitney Cummings) has invited Liza to an end-of-the-world party happening that night. Liza tells the teenage girl, “Tonight, I want to get really fucking high and eat ’til I puke.” The girl in Liza’s house replies, “I can list so many problems with that idea. The first is: You’re out of weed.”

Who is this girl? Liza finds out this other person in her home is her 15-year-old self. Liza might want to roll on Ecstasy to get high, but the only thing rolling during this movie will be viewers’ eyes at the self-consciously twee absurdity of it all. Guess who’s hanging out with Liza for the whole movie? Young Liza, who’s somehow wiser and more emotionally intuitive than the older Liza.

It’s explained in the movie that Young Liza can only be seen on the last day before the apocalypse happens. And based on the advice that Young Liza gives her older self, Young Liza is supposed to embody hindsight. Young Liza also doesn’t have the emotional baggage that older Liza has, so she’s able to see things more clearly when it comes to unresolved issues in older Liza’s life.

Before Liza and her younger self go to the party, they decide to visit a series of people to say their final goodbyes. A lot of these half-baked scenes (many of them look improvised) are just filler. There are long stretches of the movie where it’s nothing but Liza and her younger self walking from place to place and encountering goofy, strange and usually very irritating people.

Wait, doesn’t everyone drive in Los Angeles if they can afford it? The movie comes up with a reason for why Liza and her teenage mini-me end up walking everywhere for more than half the movie: Liza’s car has been stolen. It’s the end of the world, so there’s no point in reporting the theft to the police. Will Liza get her car back though? That question is answered in the movie.

Most of the people whom Liza and her young self visit are the type of characters you would expect in a low-budget indie flick where the filmmakers think that it’s automatically supposed to be funny to see adults acting like immature kooks. There are the wacky neighbors in different homes, such as Derek (played by Bobby Lee), who’s a babbling stoner; Manny (played by Fred Armisen), a forgetful eccentric; and anxious Dave (played by Paul Scheer), who gets yelled at by another neighbor for not washing his recycling container.

And then there are a few people randomly performing in the middle of the street or on a sidewalk in this residential area, including a nameless stand-up comedian (played by Ayo Edebiri), who’s actually one of the few highlights of the film. Real-life singer Sharon Van Etten shows up toward the end of the film as a folksy singer named Jet, who plays acoustic guitar in the street to an enthralled audience of two: Liza and her younger self.

“How It Ends” desperately wants to be a uniquely modern film, but it uses the oldest and most cliché trope in a comedy starring a woman: She’s pining over a man because she wants him to be her romantic partner. In Liza’s case, “the one who got away” is Nate (played by Logan Marshall-Green), a former hookup whom she has deeper feelings for than she was willing to admit when he was in her life and when she emotionally pushed him away. Liza regrets shutting Nate out of her life, and she wants to see Nate again so she can tell him that she loves him before the end of the world happens.

Liza also has some unfinished business with her divorced parents Kenny (played by Bradley Whitford) and Lucinda (played by Helen Hunt), as well as her ex-boyfriend Larry (played by Lamorne Morris), who cheated on her when they were together. Liza visits all of them during this movie to tell them how she really feels. Viewers find out that she has major abandonment issues and has had a problem communicating her true feelings to the people who are closest to her.

But the best and funniest encounter that Liza has is with an estranged friend named Alay (played by Olivia Wilde), who’s just as neurotic as Liza is. Liza and Alay have a rapid-fire conversation where they talk over each other about what went wrong in their friendship (they fell out because Alay didn’t approve of Larry), and they call a truce—because of, you know, the apocalypse.

Alay eats a very decadent-looking cake during this conversation and says she’s a psychic. What does she see in Liza’s afterlife future? Alay says, “Timothée Chalamet and lots of dairy with no consequences.” Sounds like heaven for a lot of people.

If only “How It Ends” had more of this type of laugh-out-loud comedic scene with Wilde and Lister-Jones, because they have such natural and appealing chemistry with each other. Maybe they can co-star in another movie someday. Hopefully, it would have a better screenplay and more exciting direction than what’s in “How It Ends.”

But for every scene like the rip-roaring one with Wilde, there are five or six more scenes in “How It Ends” that are just so tedious and downright cringeworthy. For example, when Liza goes to her ex-boyfriend Larry’s home, it’s a retro ripoff with derivative ideas: She holds up a boombox (just like John Cusack famously did in the 1989 movie “Say Anything”), and then she quotes the chorus of Alanis Morissette’s 1995 hit “You Oughta Know.”

And there’s some self-pitying drivel, such as when Liza and her younger self have an argument with each other. Liza wants to ditch her younger self and continue on her own, because she thinks Young Liza doesn’t count as her real self. Young Liza shouts, “I do count! All your life, you’ve been licking your fucking wounds, when I’m the biggest wound of all!” Oh, boo hoo. Did anyone bring any tissues?

Lister-Jones and Spaeny previously worked together in the disappointing 2020 horror film “The Craft: Legacy,” which was written and directed by Lister-Jones and starred Spaeny as a teenage witch who joins a coven of other teen witches. The chemistry between Lister-Jones and Spaeny in “How It Ends” is more like older sister/younger sister as two different people, rather than entirely convincing as two versions of the same person. One of the takeaways from the movie is that Liza looks physically older than her younger self, but she hasn’t emotionally matured very much since she was a teenager.

Spaeny makes some attempt to mimic certain mannerisms that older Liza would have had in her teen years. And there are times that Liza and her younger self do things in snyc when they’re walking down the street. However, the movie looks like it was filmed so quickly that Spaeny and Lister-Jones didn’t have enough time to do work on body language and speech patterns that are more subtle and nuanced.

“How It Ends” is not so off-putting that it won’t find its share of people who will love this movie. There’s a very specific type of viewer who automatically thinks any movie that reeks of being self-congratulatory “quirky” is something that’s worth admiring. But for people who prefer their comedies to actually be funny and have a significant plot, you’ll have to look elsewhere, because “How It Ends” comes up very short in these elements and is mostly just a series of poorly conceived vignettes.

MGM’s American International Pictures released “How It Ends” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on July 20, 2021.