NBFF Review: A Beginner’s Guide to Endings

For the closing night of the 12th Annual Newport Beach Film Festival, the spotlight feature of the evening was the comedy, A Beginner’s Guide to Endings.  The film essentially had the feel of what would happen if a director like Guy Ritchie were to make a family comedy.  ‘Beginner’s Guide’ is just as much about its flashiness as it is its plot, which had me trying to factor how much of this film was style versus substance.  Fortunately, despite some overkill and a somewhat predictable structure, the film does benefit from a high energy, some good laughs, and solid chemistry from within the cast.  It’s been a long week since the festival started, so it was nice to at least go out with a film that had a main focus of being fun.

Jacob:  I’m gonna make a list.  I got like a million things I wanna do.

Harvey Keitel stars in the film as Duke White.  Duke literally begins the film with a noose around his neck, as he prepares to kill himself.  He hasn’t been an ideal father to his five boys.  Known for being a bad gambler and famous fight fixer, any of the luck that Duke has had has certainly run out. The sons return to their family home in Niagara Falls, for their father’s funeral, only to learn of another terrible thing about their father during the reading of his will.  Years ago, Duke signed up his three eldest sons for unsafe drug tests that turned out to have dire consequences: the boys’ life expectancy have been substantially reduced.  This is news that obviously stirs up things significantly for the boys, who each decide to handle their new found expiration date differently.

The sons include Cal (Scott Caan), a womanizer, who decides to hook up with an old flame, Miranda (Tricia Helfer), despite her record for not keeping a husband too long, due to their untimely demise.  Then there is Jacob (Paulo Costanzo), who is known for being bright and cautious, but has now decided to grab life by the…well he’s going to take a lot more risks now, more than ever, and he’ll be accompanied by the youngest brother, Todd (Siam Yu).  Finally, you have Nuts (Jason Jones), the eldest son, who was once a boxer, now helping to train his other brother, the slow witted Juicy (Jared Keeso), despite his reservations about involving himself in a seedy business.  All of the boys will be accomplishing a lot over the course of the next couple of days, so hopefully a little word of advice from their uncle (the always great J.K. Simmons) and possibly some outside interference from Duke will provide some further help.

While enjoyable in a light sort of way, I think one of the main problems I had with this movie is that I could not get past how unreal these characters felt.  These are only people that would exist in a movie.  Now obviously this is a movie, which could make one assume that there shouldn’t be a problem, but I think it is the fact that these characters have been written so overtly as ones who are supposed to be funny, quirky, charming, and witty in the most fitting kinds of ways, that the story does not seem so much to lend itself to naturally progressing as it seems to just be going through its very written structure.  Basically, the film may be trying too hard to have you like these characters, overlooking some of the qualities that would have them be more realistically relatable.

Now, having said that, the actors involved manage to do what they can, mostly very well.  Caan has played this type of character many times, but it is a comfortable role for him to play, as a smooth talking sleaze.  Costanzo has done the know-it-all thing many times, but I like watching him on screen.  I really enjoyed Jason Jones as the eldest son, as his character arc actually had the most weight to it, while enough pathos was effectively created for the character.  And of course, J.K. Simmons can do practically anything, as he is simply saddled with nailing several fitting lines of dialogue, but does so effortlessly.  I did also enjoy seeing Keitel, as his authority in films is generally quite strong, but it only went so far to serve the story, as he was basically a comedic narrator in the background.

As a whole, the film’s story manages to work itself into a fitting tale that involves multiple characters, all intertwining, making chance encounters, and benefiting each other in various ways.  I mentioned Guy Ritchie early on for a reason, as the style is one thing, but the fact that this film functions like a truncated version of Snatch seems very apparent (there is even a climatic Boxing match).  Having received that vibe while watching the film, it is not something that bothered me; it just made the film seem a bit less fresh, as I was very aware of the kind of comic beats I knew it needed to hit.

The direction is another big part of this film.  Writer/director Jonathan Sobol and his crew have gone through large efforts to add plenty of style throughout.  Utilizing split screens, slow motion, rapid editing moments, different film stocks and color grading, this film is all over the place in terms of tackling intriguing adventures in fun cinematography.  It is certainly a way to keep this film from feeling like it was ever slowing down, and at just over 90 minutes, I do give credit to the film having pretty solid pacing throughout.

I also credit the film for its general level of fun.  Despite many things that could be seen as problems, the film is very much a crowd pleaser.  The actors all get along well, Keitel’s voice over and flashbacks lead to some pretty funny moments, and the overall spirit of the film is breezy enough to not mind the lack of stakes that should be present for characters that are basically facing death in their near futures.  I was also happy to see the film take advantage of its location at and around Niagara Falls.  As the producer pointed out before the screening began, it is not an area that I have seen very often in film, let alone the actual city around the water.

A Beginner’s Guide to Endings is a very serviceable comedy.  I am sorry if that comes off worse than it sounds, but despite its flaws, the film does have a nice charm and energy to it, which makes it worth catching at some point.  There are fun moments and I can always appreciate a cast that has good chemistry.  The story is not exactly fresh, but it does have fun with what it accomplishes, and mixed with the relatively speedy pace and flashy direction, it is enough to have kept me entertained.

What the hell is wrong with this family?

Click on the poster below to visit the Newport Beach Film Festival website.  As this was my last screened film for the festival, be sure to find all the Festival reviews I have written at Why So Blu HERE.  One final note, it has been a fun and exhausting week, as I was able to screen many films, meet a lot of good people (filmmakers and others alike), and have a generally wonderful time throughout the festival.  Ideally, I would have written a more in depth article about the festival as a whole, but I just honestly do not have the time to properly assemble an appropriate and substantial article to my liking.  With that in mind, I just want to say thank you to all involved with the festival, as they put on a very solid event that I look forward to attending next year.


Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Gamer, Comic Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

1 Response to “NBFF Review: A Beginner’s Guide to Endings”

  1. Brian White

    Scott Caan is da man!

    Thanks for all your coverage of the NBFF Aaron! Enjoyed it!