Most fans of the ’90s indie-film boom are familiar with a certain talky sort of lower-budget movie. Heavily indebted to unlikely mainstream touchstones like The Big Chill and Diner, these flicks favor stories in which longtime friends talk and screw around on one another until their long-simmering conflicts boil over in climactic fashion.
Goodbye World attempts to run with this tradition, hoping a plot wrinkle — “Let’s do The Big Chill set during the end of the world!” — will both refresh the genre and help set the film apart. Ultimately, however, it hangs too much of the film’s success on the novelty of its circumstance, and not enough on the characters that drive the story.
Bland, liberal nice guy Nick (Ben McKenzie) and his tightly wound God-fearing libertarian wife Becky (Hannibal’s Caroline Dhavernas) set off to reconnect with James (Adrian Grenier) and Lily (Kerry Bishe), another married couple with whom they’ve had a non-relationship since those crazy college salad days. Lily is Nick’s old flame, and the wounds caused when she spurned him for James were salted when James forced Nick out of the dot-com company they started together. And just in case things weren’t uncomfortable enough, Becky is the friend-of-a-friend they all ignored during college, then forgot immediately after.
James, Lily and their daughter live "off the grid" on a stylish, self-sufficient property high in the mountains of Northern California, so it takes these erstwhile chums a while to find out the world is descending into lawless mayhem, thanks to a malevolent computer virus that piggybacks on a mysterious global text message (the titular “Goodbye World”) to infect the planet’s networked systems. This depressing bit of news is delivered by yet another old friend, Benji (Mark Webber), who shows up at the house fresh from prison and the lecture circuit with a collegiate groupie and plenty of caricatured rebellious-intellectual attitude.
Miraculously, two more buddies from school — disgraced political operative Laura (Gaby Hoffman) and damaged hacker Lev (Scott Mescudi, aka musician Kid Cudi) — find their way to the compound before the group is cut off from most of the world.
What sounds like the setup for an excellent, absurdist stage production plays out predictably onscreen, as writers Sarah Adina Smith and Denis Henry Hennelly let their characters do just what the audience probably expects them to, and little else. They get high. They argue. They spend some time in the hot tub. They make fun of Becky for not being an enlightened progressive being. They suspect the most mysterious of their group of nefarious doings. They let long-standing tensions complicate an already stressful situation.
This is all going on as America goes to hell. But the apocalypse here is mostly just a plot device, teasing out true natures in the manner of about a million Twilight Zone episodes. There’s a nicely telling scene that occurs when James and Laura make a panic run to town for supplies, but otherwise, the world-ending elements of the story are nothing we haven’t seen elsewhere. Worse, one particularly momentous reveal is so ludicrous that it badly upsets the film’s intentionally grounded reality.
So it’s up to the characters and their relationships to carry Goodbye World, and they’re just not up to the task; we can almost see the actors struggling to transcend the familiar dimensions of their parts. While everyone handles the material ably (and it’s fun to watch McKenzie play against his usual brooding type), the ladies have the better-written roles and give the better performances, particularly the prickly Dhavernas and tortured Bishe. The female characters also provide the bulk of the movie’s funnier and more moving moments, as there are a few.
Director and co-writer Hennelly’s second full-length feature looks good enough — though some of the more generically composed shots imply the former Rock the Bells documentarian is still finding his personal style — and overall, Goodbye World is a well-produced indie-film experience. It has actors, direction, location, and a hook. Unfortunately, too much of the movie is hung on that single hook, without the benefit of a sturdy script to anchor it.