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Berlin Review: ‘A Long Way Down’ Starring Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collette, Imogen Poots & Aaron Paul

Berlin Review: ‘A Long Way Down’ Starring Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collette, Imogen Poots & Aaron Paul

Oh dear. [D]. Sort of tempted to leave the review at that, to be honest, but what would the internet do with all of that white space? So here is a bunch more words about it, and no matter how haphazardly they’re arranged we can take some comfort in the fact that it’s with seemingly more care than went into a certain screenplay. Because the problems with “A Long Way Down,” from director Pascal Chaumeil (of 2010’s French-language “Heartbreaker”) which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival this week, go deep — like archaeologically deep. Based on Nick Hornby’s bestseller, which we have to believe, is infinitely better than the film version if we’re to retain any faith in the book-buying public, the story of four suicidal strangers coming round to choosing life would need incredible insight and sensitivity to convince at all, let alone to work as a comedy. But neither of those qualities are anywhere in evidence in this utterly oblivious, tone-deaf and borderline offensive film, which seems to posit that potentially life-ending issues can be addressed by a holiday in the sun and a couple of trite, random displays of Being There For Each Other. Yay, everybody! The solution to suicide is hijinks!

Martin Sharp (Pierce Brosnan) is an ex-morning show TV star disgraced and sent briefly to prison for a liaison with a 15-year-old (who, in the first of a million FFS moments, he claims to have thought looked, not simply legal, not simply older than she was, but twenty-five.) In any case the scandal, which has uncomfortable real-life parallels to recent revelations about an institutionalized culture of sexual abuse of minors at the BBC in decades past, ruins his marriage and his relationship with his kid, makes him unemployable and widely hated. This makes him sad. So he is about to throw himself off a building when Maureen (Toni Collette) shows up and hesitantly asks him if he’s going to take long about it. This is the first encounter of the film, and the first time two characters engage in a conversation the like of which no one in the history of spoken communication between humans has ever had; it won’t be the last. Maureen is a mousy square who winces at swearwords and is discovered to be mother to a grown son suffering from cerebral palsy who requires constant, round-the-clock care. They are joined on the roof by Jess (Imogen Poots), Queen Pixie of the Manic Dreamgirl Brigade: London Chapter, a politician’s daughter, who is driven to impulsively attempt to terminate her life in reaction to being dumped by the unprepossessing Chaz who, once he fulfills an early narrative purpose, is never referred to again. Finally, pizza delivery boy JJ (Aaron Paul) shows up, slits their throats and bursts into flames, riding to hell on a motorbike…sorry no, we only wished we were watching something of “Ghost Rider” quality. JJ is the shy, quiet, emo one, but when prompted early on, tells them he has inoperable brain cancer and that’s why he was going to do away with himself.

In one of many blindsiding leaps in logic and character coherence, after about five minutes of acquaintance, which makes them all instant experts on each other’s personalities, they all decide to sign a pact to remain alive until Valentine’s Day; this is what it looks like when people in films make decisions based wholly on where the plot has to go. Not pretty. However the papers get wind of the story, made appetizing by Martin’s notoriety and also by Jess’s MP father (Sam Neill), not to mention another totally undeveloped plot strand involving her sister who disappeared without a trace some years before. To escape their unwanted newfound fame, the four go on a beach holiday where some things happen, then return home where some other things happen.

We’ve mentioned just how awkward and unfortunate the thematic glibness around the issue of suicide is, but we shouldn’t forget that the film is also structurally in complete shambles, nominally divided into four parts in which the narration duties are taken over by each successive player. But if these first-person voiceovers are supposed to provide a little extra personal insight into their lives, their reasons for wishing to end it all, and their reasons for not doing so, they fail miserably, reading more like swathes of poppily written prose lifted wholesale from the book at random, because maybe someone thought it sounded neat. Peppered with a kind of cynical wit that we suppose is meant to come across as acerbic, worldly, and self-aware, all too often entire sequence seems to exist solely to give Poots, for example, the opportunity to F-bomb prettily or to say something “outrageous” because EDGY.

Pinging between obvious cliché and contrivance, the characters bounce around like pinballs until, in an unearned conclusion that could have happened at literally any other juncture in this “story” and made precisely as much sense as it does here, suddenly everything is A-OK, peachy fine and will be forever and ever, because these four poor individuals haven’t even realized that they’re not people at all, just wobbly, makeshift, flesh-covered assemblages of tics and bloodless tropes. Which is almost a good thing; otherwise the pat resolution on offer would be a real slap in the face to any actual real live person who may have faced any of the myriad issues the film raises and then twirls its hair at.

But you know what the worst thing is? The film is awful, but it is not unwatchable. The camera is in general pointed in the direction of the actors —all of whom have faces we’ve enjoyed looking at before. The costumes (especially Poot’s enviable London Look wardrobe) are nice, the photography competent and in general the whole package has the sort of gloss that means that with the sound off you could mistake it for the fluffy comedy it thinks it is. That level of professional competence is what saves it from a failing grade, but it is also somehow extra galling to think of all that time and effort and talent being put to waste on a project as lacking in merit as this one. Tempting though it might be to conclude with a comparing-this-movie-to-suicide gag, we’re not going to because a) we’d be guilty of exactly the trivialization we accuse the movie of and b) “A Long Way Down” is simply not worth the time it would take to craft a pun. [D]

Click here for all of our coverage from the 2014 Berlin Film Festival.

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