Steven Kanter and Henry Loevner’s “The End of Us” might just be the single most obvious romantic-comedy that some opportunistic Hollywood up-and-comers could — and inevitably did — make about life during COVID-19. Here’s the premise: A couple in their late twenties suffers a rough, long overdue breakup mere hours before Tom Hanks gets sick and California issues a stay-at-home-order, forcing the exes to keep living together with little other human contact for an indefinite period of time. Grievances will be aired, drunken “we probably shouldn’t do that again” sex will be had, “Tiger King” will be watched. Ah, the good old days.
Eschewing the claustrophobic mania of “Locked Down,” the spiraling paranoia of “Songbird,” and the elemental folk horror of Ben Wheatley’s forthcoming “Into the Earth,” “The End of Us” is the sweetest quarantine movie that’s been made so far, and the first of this hopefully short-lived sub-genre to rely upon a certain degree of nostalgia for the extra-panicky first waves of the pandemic. Remember when a fatal contagion began spreading through the air and killing your loved ones while the government pretended it wasn’t happening because they didn’t want to make the stock market sad? That was the best.
But if “The End of Us” is tempting to dismiss on principle, it’s surprisingly pleasant to sit through on screen. At the very least, this featherlight and ultra-disposable slice of COVID kitsch scores easy points for its general relatability; most young(er) Americans who watch it in the near future — which is the only context that anyone could conceivably be interested in watching it, with the possible exception of a 2040 university course about the cinema of isolation or something — will recognize at least part of their recent lives in Kanter and Loevner’s shruggy homage to socially distanced walks, the joys of telemedicine, and the cathartic release of yelling at strangers to put on their fucking masks.
Nick and Leah aren’t the most nuanced or exciting of characters — Kanter and Loevner’s script goes for more of a “standard-issue millennial” vibe — but there are worse people to be stuck with unexpectedly. Nick (Ben Coleman) is a handsome but half-hearted and thoroughly unemployed actor who’s been threatening to write an Einstein biopic for the last four years, and the fact that he refers to it as “the flick” is enough to convince you that he needs to find a real job in a hurry. Leah (Ali Vingiano) is a responsible, driven, and relatively well-paid worker person of some kind (read: she doesn’t work “in the industry”) who probably fell for Nick back when his dreams of becoming an actor were romantic enough to excuse his abject lack of discipline or talent.
By the time Tom Hanks gets sick, it’s clear that Nick has been leeching off Leah — and Leah has been enabling Nick — for way too long, and a cute L.A. house with a nice backyard is the only thing they really continue to share together. One semi-believable argument later and it seems like these two are about to part ways, but that mischievous little stinker of a coronavirus has other plans in mind for them.
Most of “The End of Us” is spent watching these two characters negotiate the territory between them and struggle to create boundaries at a time when they can barely even go outside (although L.A. quarantine sure does seem like a nicer experience than the New York City equivalent). The optimistic Nick treats quarantine like a last-minute pardon from the governor, and spends his days watering the plants and looking on the bright side. Leah, who’s less willing to roll with the punches, doesn’t exactly share her ex-boyfriend’s cheery attitude about the sudden global stasis, and losing her job only leaves her more anxious to move on with her life. “Trust the universe,” someone advises her over Zoom, to which Leah — taking a quick look at the petrified world around her — can only reply “Why the fuck would I trust the universe?”
Kanter and Loevner’s breezy script keeps the plot to a minimum, and, in broad strokes, succeeds at marrying the fugue state of life under quarantine with the demands of a three-act structure. Coleman plays his role with an inescapable basic quality that makes even the most casual dialogue sound overwritten, but that tendency somehow doesn’t interfere with his strong comic timing; the early scene in which Nick prepares to audition for a some awful new Ryan Murphy show is a bitingly funny moment in a performance that manages to pull a handful of them out of thin air. Vingiano is also transparent at times, but she’s wickedly droll whenever Leah’s allowed to show her teeth (a telemedicine appointment that turns into couples therapy is low-key hilarious), and eases into the character’s strength as the movie rolls along.
Nick eventually finds his backbone, but this story belongs to Leah more than Kanter and Loevner even seem to realize, and a subplot about her socially distant flirtation with a former co-worker (Derrick Joseph DeBlasis) feels like a more believable time capsule than anything that happens with her ex. It’s strange that the love triangle becomes the most enjoyable part of the movie, because it’s also the most contrived; maybe this critic is just a sucker for scenes that hinge on pretentious cinephilia (Leah’s new crush is watching one Criterion film a day, which leads to the very special sight gag of Leah typing “what is a Criterion” into Google), or maybe “The End of Us” just sparks to life whenever it dares to take a deep breath and look beyond the endlessness of the current moment.
The story is true enough to the realities of our shit year — it’s the first one of these films in which someone actually tests positive for COVID-19 — but it never feels more honest than when its characters find safe and constructive ways to push forward through the purgatory of it all. There’s nothing like the powerlessness of living through a pandemic to help someone appreciate the changes they’re actually capable of making, just as there’s nothing like being entombed in the coffin of a dead relationship to help someone realize how starved they are for fresh air.
“The End of Us” premiered at SXSW 2021. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.