2021, R, 124 min. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. Starring Jason Segel, Casey Affleck, Dakota Johnson, Isabella Rice, Cherry Jones, Violet McGraw, Denèe Benton, Gwendoline Christie, Marielle Scott, Reed Diamond.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Jan. 22, 2021
Jason Segel may be the ubermensch of American movies. A big teddy bear of a man, he’s everybody’s favorite uncle, a sweetheart of a guy with a smile that invites an enveloping hug. Our Friend is an ideal vehicle for Segel; it gives him the opportunity to portray genuine selflessness and devotion without succumbing to the tropes of movie martyrdom. Scripted by Brad Ingelsby from a 2015 Esquire article by journalist Matthew Teague, the movie feels like a diary recounting the lived-in details of a true story (it is!), one in which a thirtyish Dane Faucheux (Segel) picks up and leaves his life in New Orleans – his job, apartment, and girlfriend – and moves into the small-town Alabama home of good friends Matt and Nicole (Affleck and Johnson) to help them manage her losing battle with a metastasizing cancer. Whether playing nanny to the couple’s two young girls (Rice and McGraw), confidant to the struggling spouses, or caregiver to the patient, Dane – who’s long labored to get his personal shit together – surprisingly becomes a steadying presence in a household shaken by an unfathomable turn of events. Although his dedication earns him status as an extended family member, Dane is always a little bit on the outside, as the opening scene succinctly communicates. Sitting on the front porch, he can hear the muffled agony from inside the house as his friends tell their children their mother’s illness is terminal. Segel’s intentness and subsequent body posture in this telling (albeit brief) scene beautifully communicate the sadness of a human being secretly overwhelmed by the inevitable.
The movie badly suffers from the lack of a distinctive point of view. In attempting to present the three principal characters’ perspectives somewhat even-handedly, it dilutes the dramatic intensity you’d expect from an incurable illness storyline, no matter how well-traveled it may be. Johnson gives it her best, but is seemingly reduced, through no fault of her own, to wan smiles and various head coverings disguising the effects of chemotherapy. Teague’s magazine article principally conveyed his perceptions and feelings, particularly in the context of death’s grotesque messiness, but the movie skews less towards Matt and more towards Dane, its putative emotional anchor. Ingelsby’s screenplay also uses Nicole’s initial diagnosis as a before-and-after milestone to flesh out the pre- and post-illness relationships in the movie’s triangle (there’s an intimation Dane may carry a dimly lit torch for Nicole), but the Teagues’ earlier marital problems detract from the movie’s core storyline in the end.
Aside from Segel’s grounding performance, the pleasures of Our Friend lie in some of its observational specifics about human behavior. By way of the best example, when Carly Rae Jepsen’s earworm of a pop song “Call Me Maybe” comes on the car radio as Dane takes the girls to school, he enthusiastically pronounces his love for the song and then hilariously massacres the lyrics in the way only a clueless adult can. (The kids, of course, know every word.) Although more serious moments might catch your throat (and there are a few), such as when a dying Nicole espies her extended family laughing together in another room and glimpses the future without her, the frivolity of this lyrical mishap may be the most uplifting and truest moment in this movie. It dares to speak to the rare joys of life in the midst of tragedy.