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Inside Out: “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” and “Love & Mercy” Get Stuck in Their Protagonists’ Heads

Inside Out: "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" and "Love & Mercy" Get Stuck in Their Protagonists' Heads

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” and “Love & Mercy” both open with their male protagonist alone in a room talking through their respective state of mind. “Me and Earl’s” Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) sits in his bedroom and introduces the story of his senior year of high school complete with a dose of teenage snark and a “savvy” reference to Pussy Riot. In a grainy home video, “Love & Mercy’s” Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) speaks about his creative process in a dark and cramped space, as if he’s talking to God. Both films introduce their main character through their headspace, one self-obsessed and the other equal parts inventive and troubled, and indicate that the true subject isn’t the character, but rather his mind.

The problem is that it’s those minds that are their respective films’ biggest liabilities. One belongs to an
anonymous teenager, the other to one of the most renowned artists of all
time, but both render the movies modeled on them hollow and unremarkable. It’s a shame
because “Me and Earl” and “Love & Mercy” establish
themselves as not-your-average teen film/music biopic, but ultimately fall into
traps that make them average examples of their respective genres.

“Me and Earl’s” protagonist Greg is a teenager
who drifts through life making short parody films of Criterion-approved fare
with his friend/”coworker” Earl (Ronald Cyler II), and whose life is
turned upside-down when he’s forced to hang out with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a
classmate dying of leukemia. “Me and Earl” is a deeply flawed film,
but if there’s one thing that it absolutely unequivocally gets right, it’s
Greg. I’ve never before seen a movie that accurately depicts a
teenager like Greg, who practices a type of performative self-loathing that’s
common amongst hyper-aware adolescents. He speaks in false humility and
self-deprecation in order to protect himself from his peers’ potential
disapproval, even though they either actually like him or don’t think anything
of him. Greg’s “I’ll hurt myself before anyone hurts me” tactic makes
him decidedly invisible but inoffensive to everyone, which provides him safe
passage through the high school halls. It allows him to live peacefully in his own
bubble: to watch Herzog movies, crack wise to his parents, and waste the year
away unencumbered by social or scholastic complications. Despite his annoying
affectations, Greg is a character who felt realistically drawn and a breath of
fresh air compared to other “geeks” or “nerds” or “shy”
male protagonists who hardly ever escape their air quotes. 

The problem with “Me and Earl” is everything besides Greg: the
precious Sundance tone that makes you want to claw your brain out of your
skull; the roll-your-eyes sense of humor which traffics in everything from lame
visual gags, tired drug comedy, and ironic racism; director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s
showy camera that serves nothing but itself; the groan-inducing narration;
literally, and I mean literally, every scene, moment, and line of
dialogue involving Earl; and, most importantly, the fact that this is a film
ostensibly about opening up a self-involved kid to the lives and struggles of
other people (which, incidentally, is a film that’s very much up my alley) but
only pays lip service to this idea, and instead unintentionally validates his
own adolescent narcissism. Greg is the only real
character in “Me and Earl”; everyone else is there just to serve,
placate, blandly criticize, love, or fight him. I didn’t need Gomez-Rejon or screenwriter Jesse Andrews
to make Greg completely unredeemable or unsympathetic, but in order for Greg to
come out of his head and into the world, we need to get an actual sense of the
world outside of him. 

At The Dissolve, David Ehrlich wrote a touching, personal defense of “Me
and Earl,” arguing that the film isn’t as egocentric as its protagonist,
and that its commitment to Greg’s subjectivity “illustrates its hero’s
journey away from the very things [critics] accuse the film of
celebrating.” I’m very sympathetic to this reading, as it was clear that
Gomez-Rejon was genuinely trying to make a film that depicts “Greg’s
evolution from ignorance to empathy,” as Ehrlich says. But “Me and Earl” barely shows how its
perspective differs from Greg’s, save for a few scenes that place overt criticisms
of Greg in the mouths of cardboard cutouts, such as when anonymous abstracted hot girl Madison (Katherine C. Hughes) tells him to finish his movie because it’s not for him. Ehrlich argues that because the
film is from Greg’s egotistic, media-saturated point of view, everyone in the
film is “the most cartoonish versions of themselves,” but they unfortunately remain
cartoons by the film’s end. Case in point: despite Brian Eno’s “The Big
Ship” doing the emotional heavy lifting, the scene of Rachel’s death feels
hollow, precisely because we know very little about Rachel outside of the fact
that she’s dying, and Greg’s regret and sadness over her death can’t help but
come across as phony — even if, as Ehrlich points out, it’s true that people
often process tragedy from their own inherently selfish point of view. “Me and Earl” would have been much more powerful if
Gomez-Rejon and Andrews had underlined the idea that Greg didn’t know much about
Rachel while she was alive rather than the idea that people live on long after
they’re dead. The scene when Greg discovers Rachel’s intricate carvings in her
room should feel equal parts tragic and cathartic because it’s clear she had a
whole inner life he didn’t care to want to know at the time, but it’s undercut
by Rachel helping him out with college admissions from beyond the grave,
unintentionally validating his previously blind insensitivity to his
surroundings. “Me and Earl” doesn’t have to completely destroy
Greg to work, but it has to illustrate that it understands its surroundings as
well as its protagonist’s headspace. 

“Love & Mercy” is a better film than “Me and Earl,” but
it also suffers from protagonist problems, albeit a different brand of them. Paul Bohlad’s feature centers on Beach Boys’ frontman Brian Wilson,
a musician worthy of the term “genius” who expanded the boundaries of
pop music through wild studio experimentation. It covers two parallel timelines: the first follows a young Wilson (played by Dano)
during the tumultuous time recording “Pet Sounds” and “Smile”
when he lost his mind on drugs; the other follows an older Wilson (John
Cusack) and his burgeoning relationship with Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth
Banks) while living under the tyrannical rule of psychotherapist Eugene Landy
(Paul Giamatti). 

The problem with “Love & Mercy” is that Brian Wilson, the
dramatic character, never transcends “Brian Wilson,” the mythic pop
musician who lives in our records and music libraries. We never learn much
about Wilson beyond what could be gleaned in a pop history lesson, despite persistent
access to his troubled interiority. Dano and Cusack both do good jobs of
humanizing Wilson (especially Cusack, who successfully embodies the drugged-out
shell of a man Wilson eventually becomes), but they can only do so much with a
script that tries to be both laser-focused and a broad biography. The best
scenes in the film are the most “inessential” to the story, but most
essential to Wilson as a character, such as a young Wilson eagerly and
generously collaborating with a collection of studio musicians while making “Pet
Sounds,” or when an older Wilson is bluntly sharing his past regrets with
Ledbetter over dinner. Yet, director Pohlad expects audiences to fill in
so many blanks with their own knowledge of Wilson that the character rarely ever
rises beyond a better-than-average reenactment. 

But more than that, “Love & Mercy” shares a common flaw with “Me and Earl,” in that every other character ends up being a function of Wilson’s.
Given that Brian Wilson is not a fictional suburban teenager of no real accomplishment, the focus is more understandable, but it becomes a problem because of
the aforementioned thinness of Wilson’s character. Every other character is
either a villain or a sympathetic shoulder to cry on, and by the climax, it
becomes difficult to ignore that only Wilson stands apart from the broad
archetypes that are supposed to be intimate characters. Now, you could argue
that the film is from Wilson’s perspective (as evidenced by the opening overture),
so it’s understandable that these characters are archetypal, but that doesn’t
account for Banks’ scenes outside of Wilson, or justify the strawmanning of
Mike Love (Jake Abel), Wilson’s father (Bill Camp), and especially Landy. I
should mention that the real Brian Wilson has routinely gone on record saying
that the film is accurate and factual, so while I don’t deny that, for example,
Landy was as much an over-the-top cartoon as Giamatti portrays him (which, according to screenwriter Oren Moverman, is very much
the truth), the character still unfortunately comes off as shallow in a
dramatic context. The same goes for Wilson’s father who twice berates Wilson
with, “You fired your own father!” almost as if Moverman was
reminding the audience of that fact, or Mike Love, who spouts Wikipedia
summaries about how “Hang Onto Your Ego” sounds like a “drug
song” or how “Pet Sounds” sold poorly. I believe these events
actually happened, but when placed in a film, they can’t help but come across
as standard biopic clichés, and even Pohlad’s keen visual sense can’t really save
the film from them. 

Both “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” and “Love & Mercy”
tell stories of troubled men who learn to open themselves up to the world
around them, but never spend enough time in the world itself for those stories
to have much resonance. It’s too bad because stories of people realizing that life
outside their own heads is limitless and filled with possibility are beautiful
and necessary, just not when one foot is still in the head and the other is on
the ground ready to take off.

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