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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, July 22, 2014

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Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collette, Imogen Poots, and Aaron Paul star in "A Long Way Down."
Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collette, Imogen Poots, and Aaron Paul star in "A Long Way Down."

"A Long Way Down" takes a leap but fails to be funny

"A Long Way Down," adapted from a 2005 novel written by "High Fidelity" and "About A Boy" author Nick Hornby, features probably one of the darkest meet-cutes in recent memory. Four strangers all climb to the top of a tall building in London on a bitter New Year’s Eve with the same mission in mind: to step over the edge and fall to their death. A disgraced television personality named Martin Sharp (Pierce Brosnan) is the first to attempt – with a ladder and one last cigar in tow – after losing his job, his reputation and his family following a scandalous fling with an underage girl.

Before he can step off, though, he ends up meeting the three others, all of whom are desperate to make a grand exit for different reasons. Maureen (Toni Colette), a single mother of a devastatingly disabled son; Jess (Imogen Poots), an eccentric, pill-popping daughter of a politician (Sam Neill); and J.J. (Aaron Paul), a failed American musician turned pizza delivery driver who tries to lighten everyone else’s mood that he’s dying of brain cancer; all think their problems are too much to bare, thus attempting to do what they think is best for them. 

Yes, all of this actually happens in the first few minutes of a film that ends up trying very hard to be a comedy. It's quite the high-wire attempt, but the film instead itself trips over itself, splattering onto the pavement below.

The four don’t go through with their plans, of course, because how can the movie possibly continue after the four central characters die in the first few minutes? Instead, after meeting during the darkest time in each of their lives, they all calm down and eventually become friends. At first, Sharp doesn’t want anything to do with these strangers ever again, but his good will, or something like that, gets the best of him and he offers them a ride home.

It’s all too sweet to watch them banter as they hang out, as they’re all a mix of polar opposite personalities. Not too long after meeting, they all make a pact to not go through with their suicidal plans at least until Valentine’s Day, signing their names as part of the pact on the back of Maureen’s suicide note.

For the six weeks that follow, they form a surrogate family that serves much more as a support group than anything else. When the tabloid press gets hold of their story, which somehow involves a guardian angel that looks like Matt Damon, they become mini-media sensations.

There is a lot to dislike about "A Long Way Down," directed by Pascal Chaumeil – who also directed 2010’s French-language rom-com "Heartbreaker" – from a mess of a screenplay written by Jack Thorne.

As you would accurately guess, the script gives the characters reasons to live beyond their attention from the media in the forms of bonding opportunities and a random vacation. Thorne, however, excludes elements where he sees fit, ignoring certain plot elements that are brought up but then thrown out by the film’s end. For example, Jess is haunted by her older sister’s mysterious disappearance. It’s brought up on more than one occasion, but it eventually becomes an undeveloped afterthought.

Undeveloped is actually the adjective I’d use to describe the four protagonists. Each of them get their time to narrate a chunk of the story, a unique narrative feature, but it only led to a reliance on voiceover narration. If these voiceovers were supposed to provide a little extra insight into their lives or their reasoning for wanting to end their lives or not doing so for that matter, they failed. Hard.

The cast works with what they’re given … for the most part. The usually impressive Poots is the only one who really turns an extra notch or two higher to portray the manic depressive Jess, who was actually the most interesting out of the four. Collette is also good as Maureen, really showing the character as hopeless as she describes herself more than once.

Meanwhile, Paul moves through the film as if he’s on autopilot, not really shining until a climatic moment near the end. Brosnan gives an average performance as Martin, coming off slimy, unlikeable and flat. I feel bad for the actors because they’re definitely talented, but here, some couldn’t even make a bold effort to make the film at least a bit more tolerable.

Even with the dark themes of suicide and depression lingering throughout, the film tries very hard to be a comedy, yet doesn’t manage to elicit a single laugh. 

The problem is that Chaumeil and Thorne have a troubling time trying to find a balance of tone. The overall rhythm of the comedy was a bit off, and the themes of suicide and depression weren’t pushed far enough to make any long-lasting effect on the narrative or its characters. The production value of the film and the overall visual style screamed, "romantic comedy" when it should’ve been more along the lines of "dark, depressive drama-com." Honestly, the whole film seemed like an artificial and contrived romantic comedy, so much that it's nausea-inducing. 

Although I’d never applaud suicide, but for the film’s sake, it would have been bold for Chaumeil and Thorne to go far enough to actually have one of the characters go through with their plan, because only then would the movie stir real conversation about how suicide and depression can be destructive, rather than a nearly-exploitive plot device. Much to the film’s failure, though, Chaumeil is far too content on being cutesy rather than ballsy.

As it stands now, "A Long Way Down" is a film that should’ve been insightful and moving. To our great misfortune, however, it was savaged by a screenplay that should be thrown into a fire and direction that’s as laughably bad as the direction of a below average community theatre production. 

"A Long Way Down" is currently playing on iTunes, VOD (check your cable provider), and Amazon. 

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