Wendell Sonny Lawson (Burt Reynolds) has been having medical tests done recently after not feeling his best, but the news is not good when he visits the doctor (Norman Fell): he has a terminal blood disorder. He asks the physician if it's like what Ali McGraw had in Love Story, but is told that was leukaemia she had, he is suffering something different - it is still terminal, however. The big question is, how long does Lawson have to live? The answer to that is, maybe as much as a year, but more likely three months, and he simply cannot face that painful decline, so hatches a plan to exit this world quicker, through the medium of suicide. What could be simpler for a dying man?
Burt Reynolds really is dead now, but it was a heart attack that killed him rather than a rare disease. Back in 1978, he was contemplating his final curtain with this black comedy which tried to tackle a subject Hollywood is weirdly blasé about unless they're making a weepie, in which case you're supposed to cry at the end, but all those efforts where the killing of a bad guy, be that an anonymous henchman or a lead villain, or some horror or thriller where some expendable character meets their maker to further the plot, are not about to prompt you to start pondering your mortality. Then again, perhaps The End was reluctant to tackle the bigger issues as well.
Taking a script that was penned for Woody Allen years before but discarded, Reynolds thought this was just the thing for his second film as director if he could whip the basic material into shape, and recruited a bunch of buddies and old pros alike to flesh out the comedy, better tailored to his needs. In a culture that so worships the young and vital like Hollywood does, you could see why he wanted to bring a matter not often discussed to the table, but the consensus was at the time that he was not able to find the correct tone, either opting for bad taste gags or chronic self-pity. Nevertheless, Burt in the late seventies and early eighties was enjoying an absolute juggernaut of a career, and this did fine.
Yet it is not as well-remembered as his megahits like Smokey and the Bandit or The Cannonball Run, which took a similar approach to movie making: yes, you needed a result at the end of the process, but why not turn it into an excuse to hang out with your buddies? You could more than detect that spirit in The End, especially when Dom DeLuise appeared in the second half, having first worked with Burt in Mel Brooks' Silent Movie, but here had more to do; in fact, he could really have done with being introduced earlier when the opening section was downright morose despite Reynolds making with what he hoped were the funnies. He had arranged this as a collection of sketchlike scenes, with guest stars bringing out various aspects of Lawson's personal crisis, from estranged wife (Joanne Woodward) to parents (Myrna Loy and Pat O'Brien) to daughter (Kristy McNichol).
Then there was the inevitable Sally Field as his mistress, as it wouldn't be a Burt Reynolds flick from this era without roping her in too, for some reason portrayed as a borderline crazy cat lady. It had to be said, not all these jokes hit the target, in fact damn few did, but you would be unwise to underestimate the Reynolds charm, for he proved his could carry something this dubious with sympathy and irreverent humour mixing with a curious sincerity: after all, nobody wanted to think about Burt dying in 1978, even if Burt was thinking about it on this evidence. The main problem was that no matter how it felt up to the task of tackling a subject best suited to an Ingmar Bergman gloomfest, The End kept resisting the temptation to get philosophical and reverted to type as a goofy Reynolds vehicle, even including a car chase as our hero escapes from the mental hospital after his suicide attempt fails. It did have a positive message in that you may be dying, but the lust for life endures up to that moment of passing away, no matter how depressed you are. That made Reynolds' bungled efforts here oddly endearing, as who could have tackled it better in his position anyway? Music by Paul Williams.