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There’s a telling moment in the third act of The Friend, a drama of terminal illness, where Dakota Johnson’s character, nearing the end of her life, looks in the mirror and tells her husband, played by Casey Affleck, that she looks ugly. She bemoans the fact that people can no longer look at her and he provides reassurance, telling her she looks as beautiful as ever. It’s a sweet scene on paper but in the Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s fact-based yet sanitised film, it doesn’t ring true. Johnson, at her movie worst, is still supernaturally beautiful with clear skin and a cute pixie cut and the moment showcases one of the film’s biggest failings: an unwillingness to show just how horrifying cancer can be.
In the award-winning Esquire article from which the film is based, death is described as “grotesque” and “undignified” and the details are uncomfortably graphic – the author should know, he’s the husband who cared for his wife as she died of stomach cancer in their home. But up on screen it’s as prettified as it would be in a Lifetime movie, Cowperthwaite avoiding the opportunity to root her film in reality, a surprise given her background as a documentarian. The story jumps back and forth through a 14-year period, telling us the story of a couple, Matt and Nicole, as they befriend Dane (Jason Segel), who becomes a mainstay in their lives. When Nicole is diagnosed with cancer, Dane finds himself helping out with the house and their two children more and more until finally he moves in, initially for a two week period before gradually realising that he can’t leave them.
There’s promise here with a poignant opening scene showing the unimaginably difficult process of deciding how to tell two young children that their mother’s cancer is terminal. It feels unusually specific and given the source material, I hoped that the film that followed would be equally raw. But while the screenwriter, Brad Ingelsby, does root us in the minutiae of the trio’s day-to-day, it’s never in particularly interesting ways, and over an indulgent 135-minute runtime, we gradually grow tired of them, often questioning exactly why we need to know so much about their lives. It’s also as if both Ingelsby and Cowperthwaite are aware of the potentially generic nature of the film and so they employ a silly, unsuccessful structure which sees the film flipping between different time periods, each vignette accompanied with text that explains how far before or after Nicole’s diagnosis we are. It’s incredibly disorienting and only audience members with a pocket-sized Homeland cork board will be able to slot the timeline into place. It’s a gimmick to make us think there’s more here, like the film’s over-used drone shots, and all it does is frustrate us even further.
There are narrative gaps being filled in that we don’t really care about, as if we’re watching a mystery rather than an easy-to-predict drama, and any dramatic tension over the impact of someone’s infidelity is immediately destroyed given that it all happens in a flashback. There’s an over-investment in our interest in these characters, especially since Ingelsby struggles to bring them to life. Johnson is a wonderful actor and she does have her moments here but I never really bought her as a gregarious musical theatre enthusiast and when we finally see her sing, the casting is made even harder to swallow. Segel is firmly, boringly, within his standard man-child wheelhouse, albeit with less comedy and more drama, and so it’s left up to Affleck to carry the movie. He’s easily the best thing about it and the film’s most emotive moments belong entirely to him.
But for a film about such a devastating topic, a mother in her 30s dying of cancer, there’s not the stinging sadness that we expect to arrive, and it’s not through lack of trying, with Cowperthwaite virtually offering us tissues for the last 30 minutes. Try reading the article instead.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: The Friend review – standard-issue cancer drama jerks no tears | Film