Valentine’s Day is always a mixed proposition: a celebration for those in love or doom’s day for the lonely singletons desperate for companionship. At least, that’s what most romance films want us to believe — not to mention the lists. All sorts of lists: the top 10 romance films, the top 50 romance films or the best romance films of all time inevitably pollute the internet on Cupid’s day. This year, however, an alternative message has landed with “A Long Way Down,” director Pascal Chaumeil’s adaptation of Nick Hornby’s acclaimed novel, which premiered this week at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Combining morose and joyful ingredients in an unlikely package, “A Long Way Down” follows a conscience-stricken ex-television presenter (Pierce Brosnan), a struggling single mother (Toni Collette), a angst-riddled teen (Imogen Poots) and a downbeat musician (Aaron Paul) who form a suicide pact: After they all run into each other during an attempt to dive off the same roof at on New Year’s Eve, they instead to decide to delay the end of their lives during another significant festivity — namely, Valentine’s Day. In the midst of all this desperation, the offbeat characters find companionship in each other, and the possibility that they might find a better possibility than death.
It’s no coincidence that Hornby chose Valentine’s Day as the centerpiece for this story: By shaking up perceptions of the holiday with a dark twist, Hornby assails the clean depictions of lonely figures who find love on the holiday that have become the genre’s biggest cliché.
Though it suffers from some pacing issues, the movie version of Hornby’s story (adapted for the screen by Jack Thorne) rejects the aforementioned rose-tinted conventions and opts for a more human approach. Valentine’s Day should, the movie argues, involve a broader definition of love: love among family, love among friends. And precisely because it includes no sex scenes, merely suggesting some degree of burgeoning attraction between JJ and Jess, “A Long Way Down” ultimately shows friends choosing to find a way to enjoy life and rests its case just there. In doing so, Hornby and Thorpe provide an alternative conception of Valentine’s Day just in time for this year’s holiday. In contrast to “High Fidelity” – another Hornby adaptation – in which heartbreak plays a central role, “A Long Way Down” is defined by affection of a different sort.
The stereotypes of Valentine’s Day, with its chocolates, flowers, hearts and factory-mandated cards — have created an industrialized version of love that too many romance movies eagerly confirm. We’ve all been fed the template for light-hearted meet-cute stories in cinema (no matter how good or bad they are) that we have instantly and instinctively yielded to the yoke of this fabricated model. “A Long Way Down” rejects them. Despite its forced happy ending, its non-formulaic premise shines through. We never see the customary scenes of a man pining for the object of his desire or the eventual argument that pulls the couple apart. Rather than telling a love story involving two people, the story involves four people caring for each other. Moreover, none of these characters are dashing young bachelors, cute-but-clumsy girls next door, feuding parents or judgement siblings. The cast is mainly comprised of four different, normal characters of varying ages and backgrounds with a wide variety of problems. Collectively, they’re a relatable bunch.
That being said, “A Long Way Down” deserves a spot on the inevitable list of top oddball Valentine’s Day rom-coms. All of you list-makers out there, take note.