Just Smile, by Rita Cannon
There’s a great line in Michael Lehmann’s Heathers in which Ms. Fleming, the well-intentioned but ultimately clueless high school guidance counselor, says that “whether or not to kill yourself is one of the most important decisions a teenager can make.” One of the best things about Heathers is its satire of the simplistic, self-righteous ways the adult characters react to what they think is an epidemic of teen suicide. No one makes an effort to understand the feelings or circumstances that might lead someone to consider ending their life; they merely repeat a boilerplate message of “Teenage suicide – don’t do it!”, as though all it takes to pull someone out of abject despair is a pat on the back and a verbal reminder that killing yourself is bad. Pascal Chaumeil’s A Long Way Down, adapted from the novel by Nick Hornby, treats its main characters, all of whom attempt suicide within the first ten minutes, with about as much respect and sensitivity as Ms. Fleming treats her students with in Heathers. The difference is that Ms. Fleming is a purposely silly character in a comedy, while A Long Way Down is an entire movie, and one that apparently expects to be taken seriously at least some of the time.
We meet our four protagonists on the top of a London skyscraper on New Year’s Eve. Pierce Brosnan plays Martin, a former talk show host whose career was destroyed after a sex scandal involving an underage girl. Toni Collette is Maureen, a single mother of a severely disabled son to whom she devotes all of her time and energy, while still worrying she doesn’t do enough for him. Imogen Poots is Jess, the daughter of a prominent politician who’s struggling with a breakup and lingering grief over the disappearance of her sister. Lastly, Aaron Paul is JJ, a musician with terminal cancer and some other issues the film vaguely hints at but doesn’t seem prepared to commit to. Failing to anticipate what a popular time and place this might be for suicides (are they also shocked when the beach is crowded on Memorial Day?), they all run into each other up there and, apparently deciding it would be too awkward to just form an orderly line or something, they all decide to give up and carpool home together.
The idea that all four of these people would be willing to get in a car and openly talk about what just happened – that not even one of them would say, “Hey, I’m a little emotionally raw right now and not exactly in the mood to make new friends, I think I’ll just walk” – is the first in a series of character beats that are just about impossible to buy into. But they become fast friends, eventually deciding to form a pact that none of them will kill themselves until at least Valentine’s Day. A problem arises when it is somehow leaked to the press that Martin, already tabloid fodder because of his scandal, is in a suicide pact, and all four find themselves suddenly in the national spotlight. The question of who went to the press is at first treated as very important, before being completely abandoned.
A Long Way Down repeatedly skims quickly over a lot of these complex, thorny issues that should be fascinating, but instead get relentlessly whitewashed so that the film can retain the label of “uplifting.” Martin’s sense of shame about his sexual indiscretions is paid lip service, but not much more. Jess’s grief over her sister is mostly backgrounded as well. There are a few moments that hint at the more emotionally resonant film this could have been. One is a fantastic scene between Jess and her father (a wonderful Sam Neill) that starts with Jess making a joke about being visited on the skyscraper by an angel, and turns into an unexpected emotional gut-punch. Likewise, Maureen’s tortured sense of duty to her son, combined with her frequent declarations of how much better off he’d be “with proper care,” really feel like the run-up to her abandoning him (through suicide or otherwise), or at least admitting she’s thought about it and feels guilty, but neither happens. Chaumeil and screenwriter Jack Thorne constantly swerve away from anything that might make complicate the story or make the characters less likable, which is an even bigger shame when you consider how great all four of these actors are. Knowing that Brosnan, Collette, Poots, and Paul could really act the shit out of a richer screenplay makes it all the more frustrating to watch them get more and more hemmed in as the film nears its predictable feel-good ending.
Paul is the most ill-served of anyone, stuck playing a cardboard cutout of a cardboard cutout whose only distinguishable personality trait is “sad.” The film makes some vague gestures toward JJ having what I guess you’d call clinical depression – everyone else’s unhappiness is treated as a direct result of their practical circumstances, while JJ talks about his in a more nebulous way – but that too is oversimplified, leading to a pat ending that I imagine might seem rather insulting to anyone who’s actually dealt with depression.
There’s a point where one character says to another, “You really don’t understand what a disaster we all are, do you?” For a film whose entire premise is based on four people wanting to die, A Long Way Down doesn’t seem willing to acknowledge that life is full of complication and pain, and it certainly isn’t willing to let its characters feel or act like disasters. They come off instead as people having bad days, but who will learn to get over it as soon as someone offers them a hug and some kind words. It feels like a PSA Ms. Fleming would have made.