Friday, October 24, 2014

A Long Way Down: My take on the movie starring Toni Collette, Imogen Poots, Pierce Brosnan and Aaron Paul

Oh, so heartbroken! I've finally managed to see A Long Way Down on Netflix (we just installed a ROKU which took care of slow streaming and freezing problems)- I blogged and blogged and blogged and blogged about the book, I loved it sooooo much - and, yes, it IS a long way down. A hard flop down, I would say. I was prepared to be disappointed as the lack of a real release date here in the states was a pretty big clue the adaptation of Nick Hornby's book was a dud. And then those initial pesky reviews

The problem with the movie though, isn't how bad it is, it's how good it could have been. The material was dark, and edgy and bitingly funny; that laughing through the tears kind of funny. The movie was a weird melding of I don't know what, snark, sap and lacking in gritty recognizable authenticity, with director Pascal Chaumiel seemingly encouraging the cast to overact like they were in a high school play. There's a total lack of trust in the actors to tell the story, and the audience to get it. Instead there are plenty of obvious, dig-in-the-ribs moments. The relationship between JJ (Aaron Paul) and Jess (Imogen Poots) is so nuanced in the novel, we feel, rather than see a push/pull attraction; the movie plays it out in the open, with Jess draping herself all over him, pretty much as you see it in the poster above. Their rom-com ending is NOT what I was looking for at all.


The script by Jack Thorne misses the mark completely; we really don't get to see the utter hopelessness that would drive four souls to the top of a building to throw themselves off, and the sheer bungling and dawning realization of the gravity of the situation that stops them. The cast is incredibly talented in other films and tv shows but here are given a shallow script that never delves into who these people really are. As a person with creative leanings I was especially disappointed that we didn't get to know J.J. better. He was probably my favorite character in Nick Hornby's novel - the tortured musician who knows there's nothing he can do in life except make his music - in the film he's reduced to a caricature and rom-com bad boy. Pierce Brosnan's TV host Martin Sharp was okay; I was actually surprised how well they handled the underage girl aspect, believing in fact that she really did look 25 vs Martin being a dirty old perv. Rosamund Pike  so incredible in Gone Girl, comes off as fake as Martin's former broadcasting partner. Sam Neil is fine as Jess's dad, if wasted in the part.

On the good news front, I believe one can never have too much Toni Collette, and she's just as watchable here as Maureen as she always is. Also I've become an overnight fan of Imogen Poots - her character is supposed to be over the top and she plays it balls to the walls - and really hope she gets more effectively directed as Dee Moray in the screen adaptation of Jess Walter's luminous Beautiful Ruins. Oh God, I hope they don't botch that too!

Dan Tallerico, in his review over at RogerEbert.com puts it pretty well, enumerating the problems in his review, quoted in full here.
There are moments of tenderness and honest human emotion buried in the frustrating “A Long Way Down” but one has to work far too hard and give far too much credit to the over-qualified cast to grab at them. Based on a hit book by Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity,” “About a Boy”) that contained an emotional minefield maudlin enough that the film took nearly a decade to come into existence even though the Hornby bandwagon was full in the ‘00s, “A Long Way Down” is a textbook case of over-direction. Characters laugh too hard; the score by Dario Marianelli alternates between wispy guitar strumming and heartstring-pulling piano tinkling; the suicidal characters literally dance to “I Will Survive” at one point. You get the idea. Honest emotion falls victim to poor filmmaking again. 
Martin Sharp (Pierce Brosnan) wants to kill himself on New Year’s Eve. He has tumbled from the height of popularity after a sex scandal with an underage girl destroyed his family and sees no reason to go on if he’s not famous. He climbs to the roof of the Toppers Building, a notorious suicide spot; so notorious that he runs into three other people on this frosty, fateful evening. Maureen (Toni Collette) has a severely disabled son and can’t go on. Jess (Imogen Poots) is heartbroken and J.J. (Aaron Paul) tells his new mates that he has brain cancer. The four agree to delay their life-ending until Valentine’s Day, keeping tabs on each other over the next month-and-a-half and, of course, forming a unique bond. 
When the “Topper House Four” is outed in the press (it turns out that Jess’ dad is a famous politician, making her bait for tabloid headlines), they become semi-celebrities. To escape the attention, they jet off to a resort, frolic in the surf, grow closer, learn the importance of life, get a tan, etc. 
“A Long Way Down” is a film that’s afraid of its subject matter: suicidal depression. One never senses any actual danger or urgency in the plight of these characters to battle their demons before they kill them, and the lack of any sense that these people might actually end their lives drains the piece of drama. Their depression is merely a plot device. J.J. was once the frontman for a band called Gepetto and he laughs about one of the hackneyed lines that he wrote: “I don’t mind the pain, it’s the hope that kills me.” Writer Jack Thorne and director Pascal Chaumeil present the line as a bit of humor about a wannabe grunge band that never was but it’s indicative of the problem with the film. The movie never minds the pain. It doesn’t pay attention to it. We don’t feel it. Well, most of the time. The always-great Collette somehow finds a way to make the most maudlin and manipulative character arc of the quartet hit most of the right beats. The film's greatest value is further proof that Collette makes everything she's in better. 
To be fair, Poots is quite good here as well, but both actresses are weighed down by a director who didn’t trust them. Jess lying on her bed singing the BeeGees classic “Tragedy” should be done with a wink, not with a treacly score underneath. When the foursome realizes they’ve written their non-suicide pact on the back of Maureen’s suicide note, the actors have been directed to laugh in response in an exaggerated, overblown way. It sounds picky, I know, but “A Long Way Down” never registers emotionally because it is constantly reminding you it’s a movie. And it’s not a very good one.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. So disappointing. I love everything Nick Hornby writes. I even enjoy the new TV series About a Boy. Too bad about the movie. Thanks for sharing though

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