Affleck, Segel and Johnson Breathe Life into a Melodramatic Friend
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s (Blackfish, Morgan Leavey) cancer melodrama Our Friend doesn’t waste any time letting the viewer know what it is they are in for. The opening scene is an intense moment between Matt Teague (Casey Affleck) and his wife Nicole (Dakota Johnson) as they discuss what they are going to say to their two daughters Molly (Isabella Kai) and Evie (Violet McGraw). It sets the stage for all of the tearful tragedy and heartbreak to come, pulling zero punches as it states in no uncertain terms that Nicole is going to die.
What follows is a nonlinear take on journalist Matthew Teague’s 2015 Esquire article “The Friend: Love Is Not a Big Enough Word,” adapted and augmented by screenwriter Brad Ingelsby (The Way Back). It not only follows the couple’s battle against Nicole’s ovarian cancer, but it also examines their deep friendship with college buddy Dane Faucheux (Jason Segel). He comes to live with the family as something of a live-in guest, nanny and caretaker during the final year of the actress, wife and mother’s life, becoming an emotional backstop for the entire Teague clan right when they needed it the most.
I can’t say I feel like this approach always works particularly well. Even with little typed interstitials stating the time and place, I found it frustratingly easy to lose track of where we were in the story at any given time. This also made it difficult to get a feel for any of the secondary supporting characters. This is particularly frustrating when, at one crucial point, Matt lets a close friend of Nicole’s know in no uncertain terms that everyone, save probably Dane (but even on that point he’s a little uncertain), will disappear from their lives one by one the closer they get to the end.
Because I hardly knew who this person was, this has the unfortunate side effect of making a follow-up sequence where this premonition comes sadly true fall moderately flat. Even though Cowperthwaite stages the moment beautifully, and although Affleck’s silent, intuitively internal performance when Matt unexpectedly spies Nicole’s aforementioned friend at a park when she’s supposed to be at their house on a quick impromptu trip to the grocery store is nothing short of perfect, this scene still left me cold. It felt like a too-obvious three-dimensional piece of this collapsible pyramid of tragedy and grief that was inevitably going to come tumbling down, and because of that its authenticity hit me as being suspect.
Shame because the core trio is wonderful. As noted, Affleck is wonderful, grounding his performance in ways that are haunting. Johnson doesn’t have quite as much to work with but still makes the most of each second of her screen time. She brings unexpected moments of giddy, self-effacing playfulness to her portrayal of Nicole that are sublime. But the actress also has the ability to subtly turn on a dime and showcase a myriad of interior emotional nuances which broke my heart while also providing salve to my wounded soul, Johnson stripping herself to the bone bringing her character to life.
Then there is Segel. This is arguably his strongest work to date, The Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The End of the Tour actor stealing virtually every scene he is in. Dane’s friendship with Matt and Nicole is heartbreakingly sincere. His love for them (and theirs in turn for him) cascades off the screen like a pristine humanistic waterfall. More than that, though, Segel taps into some dark, incredibly personal layers of longing and need that caught me by surprise, a brief desert sojourn where Dane inexplicably goes camping and encounters a magnetic fellow traveler (a divine Gwendoline Christie) simply marvelous.
Cowperthwaite doesn’t always appear to have a firm grasp on the interlocking pieces of the intricate, time-bouncing narrative, and I’m still not entirely sure why Ingelsby felt the need to structure things with such purposefully annoying convolution. There were moments where the inherently personal nature of the Teague family’s story is lost in all the discombobulating narrative nonsense, lessening the impact of the final scenes substantially.
Yet none of this stopped the tears from flowing by the time this film reached its preordained conclusion, and to say I wasn’t visibly moved would be a lie. Additionally, the three performances from Affleck, Segel and Johnson are ultimately what make Our Friend worthwhile. They all tap into something affectingly genuine, the poignant intimacy of their collective achievement a life-affirming celebration of friendship, love and family I found difficult to resist.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 2½ (out of 4)