By Preston Wilder
“We’re a team. We’re the worst team in the world, but … we’re a team,” says Pierce Brosnan at the climax of this dire comedy-drama. There’s a certain British tendency to combine sentimentality with self-deprecation which I find annoying (your mileage may vary), typified for instance by the bit in Four Weddings and a Funeral where Hugh Grant’s deaf brother laid out some wise and important life lessons then added, in sign language: “By the way, your flies are undone”. Brits are uncomfortable with strong emotion, so they add a little humorous rider to deflate it. “We’re a team!” is the sentimental wallop, “worst team in the world” the humorous rider. I find it twee.
Four Weddings was written by Richard Curtis, while A Long Way Down is based on a novel by Nick Hornby (whose About a Boy also suffered from self-conscious self-deprecation). This is a film that dares to touch on a controversial issue – suicide – and is so freaked out it spends most of its running-time trying to turn its suicidal heroes into charming oddballs. Brosnan is Martin Sharp, a disgraced TV host who climbs to the roof of a tall building on New Year’s Eve, fully intending to jump off – at least till he finds three other wannabe jumpers on the same roof, frumpy Maureen (Toni Collette), rebellious wild child Jess (Imogen Poots) and token American J.J. (Aaron Paul). They try to be polite, but the whole thing is terribly awkward. “Shall we do introductions?” says Jess brightly.
Could this premise have made for a good movie? Probably not, because it’s passive-aggressive. It wants the cachet of real-life issues – Maureen has a severely disabled son; Martin gets ambushed on-air by his former TV co-host, making for a comment on UK tabloid culture – wrapped up in bubbly carefree kookiness. Still, the result didn’t have to be as bad as A Long Way Down – a film that runs the gamut from merely unconvincing to actively maudlin to out-and-out tasteless.
Some of it is so bad it’s breathtaking. The plot is inept, going on a barely-necessary trip to Tenerife for much of the second act. Sam Neill turns up as Jess’s dad, a bumptious politician who’s a bit of an idiot. “Has anyone ever told you you’re a bit of an idiot?” asks Martin. “I’m a politician,” he replies. “That’s all they ever tell me”. (Hard to believe that exchange made it past the first draft, let alone attracted an actor of Sam Neill’s calibre.) Our suicidal foursome make a pact, agreeing not to try and kill themselves again – at least till Valentine’s Day which, as we all know, is the next date after New Year’s Eve when people kill themselves in numbers. (What fun!) Later, Jess and J.J. compare neuroses. When I was a kid I jumped off the roof just to hurt myself, recalls J.J. When I was younger I carved my ex-boyfriend’s initials into my inner thigh, retorts Jess. Is neurosis supposed to be cute now?
It’s not that A Long Way Down is offensive per se. A good dark comedy about suicide – see, for instance, the 1971 classic Harold and Maude – is perfectly possible; M.A.S.H. became one of the top-rated TV shows of the 70s with a theme song called ‘Suicide is Painless’. But this one tugs at the heartstrings far too blatantly, so its lightweight inanity becomes offensive. When you get Jess lying moodily in bed humming ‘Tragedy’, or Maureen taking care of her handicapped son, or our four heroes opening up about why they were on that roof that night (Maureen bursts into tears), it’s hard to avoid a feeling that the film simply hasn’t earned that kind of pathos.
There’s one scene that works in A Long Way Down: when the foursome, now the subject of a media frenzy, are interviewed on TV by a smiling presenter (Rosamund Pike) whose convivial mask hides the callous sensationalism of all British tabloids. Smiling all the while, she pokes and prods unmercifully, honing in on personal pain and determined to provoke a reaction. It’s a good scene – but also suggests what may be wrong with this feeble film, viz. that those behind it (starting with original author Hornby) are more interested in what it means to be a celebrity than what it means to be suicidal.
You can’t blame the actors. Brosnan is something of a treasure in his middle age, projecting natural authority with a dash of righteous grumpiness. “Who are all these people,” he grunts rhetorically, surrounded by breakfasting holidaymakers in Tenerife, “and why do they all eat so much?”. I also admit to having something of a crush on Imogen Poots (I know, she’s too young), and enjoyed her chemistry with Aaron Paul in Need for Speed – though even she is finally defeated by Jess, an annoyingly manic sprite who’s really an “unhappy little thing” behind the pushy irreverence. In the end, all these maudlin characters fully deserve each other. They’re a team. They’re the worst team in the world, though.
DIRECTED BY Pascal Chaumeil
STARRING Pierce Brosnan, Imogen Poots, Aaron Paul, Toni Collette
UK 2014 96 mins