Review of the new movie.
Hey. Hey you. Have you heard of John Dies at the End? If you have, congratulations, you are probably like me and gain most of your knowledge from Cracked.com. If you haven’t, I’m here to tell you how to feel about it. John Dies at the End, more commonly known as JDATE (and by commonly, I mean that a friend of mine refers to it as such because he’s apparently not big on the Jewish dating scene), is a book by Cracked columnist David Wong. Semi-recently, a film of the same name based on the source material has been made and subsequently touring the film festival circuit in the United States.
I’m not going to go into too much detail with the synopsis, mostly because it’s a batshit crazy ride and there’s no point. As far as common elements are concerned, two buddies, Dave and John, accidentally (in Dave’s case) or purposefully (John) get exposed to a drug called “soy sauce,” provided to them by their local psychic Rastafarian. What ensues is a journey of madness that makes you question the nature of reality and sanity.
Cinematic adaptions of novels can be tough- there’s a layer of detail and feeling in a narrative that can be hard to capture in a 93-minute movie. Furthermore, with the level of reality-bending and hallucination-induced action that occurs in the book, it’s nigh impossible to tell the exact same story as Wong, with all of its tangents and side adventures. However, Wong tells a vivid- almost manic- tale in his book, and the movie makes a solid effort to capture that.
The catch when it comes to the source material is that the end of the book is a bit…abstract. I’m not going to spoil anything here, but suffice to say, once you finish reading, you’re not quite sure what’s happened- to Dave, to John, to yourself, to really anyone around you ever. I confess that I read the book maybe four years ago and don’t have a solid memory of how exactly everything panned out, but I can tell you this much- the end of the movie was dissimilar in every way. While the movie’s ending is probably more coherent (which is saying something, because it’s still pretty unhinged), it lacks a certain je ne sais pa of the original. The movie digresses from the source material at a distinct point, and you can feel it. Everything falls a little flatter- the pacing, the dialogue, the plot- than it does in the first 2/3rds or so of the movie. Even a non-reader could probably pick up on this shift. This will probably only offend the most zealous of purists, and the rest of the movie drips with the unique and somewhat certifiable worldview of Wong’s original work, but it is jarring to anyone simply trying to enjoy a movie.
Despite my qualms with the changed ending (again, not so much because they changed it, but because it so noticeably did not blend in with the rest of the film’s tone), there are a lot of pros to this movie. The acting is surprisingly stellar. Paul Giamatti, of course, is the “big name” star of the film, though he isn’t the main character. Those are Dave (Chase Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes). Both actors do a spot-on job with their characters; John is portrayed as a lovable but probably dangerous nutjob, while Dave is a cynic forced to confront unimaginable horrors in the midst of his disbelief. Even though everything around them is chaos, both the characters are believable. The acting in the back-up cast is just as solid- most notably Glynn Turman as the detective pursuing this strange case. The characters were well cast and a lot of the dialogue (from what I recall) is at least loosely based on Wong’s work. Since his writing is what brought the book to life, the reflection of this in the dialogue is what really sells the movie.
Last but not least- the effects. Were they hokey? Yeah, kind of. For the fact that I’m pretty sure this film was made on a shoestring budget, they aren’t that bad. It’s hard to make truly terrifying monsters without China’s GDP’s worth of latex and paint. Plus their cheap, nimble, exploited little fingers to type all the CGI code. Don’t expect to be wowed on this level, but accept instead that everything happening to these guys might be all in their heads anyway- who’s to say what those kinds of projections would be like? Also, if you were wondering, there are a lot of tits at one point, so there's that.
Overall, this movie has most of the hallmarks of a cult classic- or at least a cult success. Will it ever have mass audiences and wide distribution? Realistically, no. But it’s hilarious, and poignant, and at times downright creepy. These characteristics make it compelling and enjoyable for the right audience, but the particular way they are mixed lacks mass appeal. Looking around at my audience and making snap assumptions, I’d say it was mostly Cracked fans and stoners. (Yeah, these demographics probably have overlaps.) If you’ve read the novel and enjoyed it, the movie is definitely worth a watch. If wry, sarcastic humour combined with drug-induced psychosis is your thing (hey, it worked for Thomas Pynchon) then you’ll also probably like it. If you’re looking for a straight horror or comedy, though, try somewhere else.
P.S. no word yet on if/when this will be released everywhere (it's only been at Sundance, SXSW, TIFF, and Chicago Film Festival), but you can follow up here.