The end can’t get here soon enough in “Goodbye World,” an unholy cross between thirtysomething gabfests like “The Big Chill” and “The Decline of the American Empire” and the suddenly flush lo-fi apocalypse subgenre (“This Is the End,” “Melancholia,” et al.) Mostly, director Denis Henry Hennelly’s sophomore feature strands us in a cabin in the NorCal woods with a half-dozen of the whiniest, most self-entitled protags this side of the worst mumblecore movie you barely remember seeing. If these folks are supposed to be America’s best hope, we might as well all pack it in now. As for the movie’s future, it’s looking dim indeed.
A pretitle sequence depicts the first inklings of the coming social breakdown: a cryptic text message stating simply “goodbye world” appears simultaneously on more than 1 million cell phones, followed quickly by a collapse of the power grid and mass panic in the streets. Against this backdrop, two couples are preparing to spend a weekend together: uptight yuppies Nick (Ben McKenzie) and Becky (Caroline Dhavernas), so identified by their penchant for traveling with their own bedding in vacuum-sealed space bags; and crunchy, back-to-nature types James (Adrian Grenier) and Lily (Kerry Bishe), who’ve left “society” behind for a rustic-chic Mendocino County estate handily decked out with its own water supply, pharmacy and other rapture-friendly sundries.
Though you might think, under the circumstances, that they’d let sleeping dogs lie, these old college friends waste little time before picking at old wounds. Back in the good old days, it seems, Nick and James were business partners in some kind of startup whose partnership ended up in court. Even further back, Nick was engaged to Lily, who now seems a little too happy to see him again. Eventually, they’re joined by three other old friends seeking shelter: Beni (Mark Webber), a motorcycle-riding activist who did a prison stint for arson and shows up with his latest coed conquest in tow; political adviser Laura (Gaby Hoffman), recently the co-star with her Congressman boss of a widely YouTubed sex video; and the lone African-American in this very white bunch, a computer uber-hacker bearing the curious name of Lev Berkowitz (Scott Mescudi).
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Hennelly and co-screenwriter Sarah Adina Smith haven’t written characters so much as character types, each designed as a mouthpiece for one of various conflicting political beliefs ranging from progressive liberalism to libertarianism. This in turn leads to lots of blather about democracy and freedom on about the level of a junior-high debate club, while everyone (save for anal-retentive Becky) smokes enough grass for several Cheech and Chong movies. All, in turn, are revealed to be at least a touch hypocritical, suggesting that no ideology is without its failings. Who knew?
The core idea of a power failure outage leading to something like anarchy was previously explored far more thoroughly and plausibly in David Koepp’s superb, underrated “The Trigger Effect” (1996), which further benefited from characters you didn’t want to strangle. Here, the tenor is oddly sanguine for most of the pic’s first half, with the friends even taking time out for an impromptu talent show, until the arrival of a couple of bullying National Guardsmen signals an abrupt shift into more serious terrain. Even then, “Goodbye World” remains fatally predictable and reductive in its pitting of our forward-thinking intellectuals against a variety of get-off-my-lawn rednecks — an attempt, one supposes, at some kind of allegory for our divided nation (made even less subtle by Laura’s sideline as a George Washington-quoting Revolutionary War re-enactor). A third-act revelation that connects the dots between the “goodbye world” text and the ensuing crisis is at once risible and incredibly contemptuous of human intelligence.
Among the talented but squandered cast, McKenzie fares best, largely because his is the only character with any semblance of an inner life — the kind of guy who’s done everything “right” in life, only to wind up fundamentally dissatisfied in the looming shadow of 40. Pic does sport an unusually polished level of technical craft for a low-budget indie, especially cinematographer Jeff Bollman’s inventively composed widescreen frames and judiciously employed CG effects that suggest fires burning on the horizon and President Obama addressing the nation on TV.