You know how grief — that real, gut-punching, emotionally crippling grief — can turn a strong man into a quivering, infantile mess? There’s probably nothing — short of a adorably brave little girl succumbing to cancer — that can manipulate me more than seeing a grown, emotionally-closed-off adult male helplessly bawl. It’s a cruel trick to play in movies, but it’s often an effective one, at least if wrenching tears is what you’re going for.
Shana Feste’s The Greatest — which was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival but still managed, more or less, to bypass theatrical release (it had a token release in April) and head straight to Netflix Instant, despite a remarkable cast — is exactly the kind of film that wants nothing more than to make you weep. In that it succeeds, despite not being a particularly good film and in spite of the script but because of the brilliant ensemble. But dear God, is it manipulative.
In the opening seconds of The Greatest, Rose (Carey Mulligan) makes love to Bennett (Aaron Johnson, Kick Ass) and afterward, as Bennett is confessing his love for Rose in a car parked in the middle of the street, another car crashes into it, killing Bennett. Three months later, Rose arrives at the house of Bennett’s parents and reveals that she’s pregnant with his child.
That’s probably enough emotional impetus right there to propel a pretty decent movie, but Shana Feste layers on the dysfunction. Bennet’s dad, Allen (Pierce Brosnan) is emotionally crippled and refuses to talk about his son or his death. He was also engaged in an affair before his son was killed. The mom, Grace (Susan Sarandon) doesn’t want to do anything else besides talk about Bennett; in fact, she spends much of her day sitting next to the comatose man (Michael Shannon) who crashed into her son’s car, just so she can talk to him about her son’s final words when he wakes. Meanwhile, Bennett’s brother, Ryan (Johnny Simmons) is a druggie who deals with his grief with sarcasm even as he attends grief counseling for teenagers. Poor Rose, whose mother is in rehab, has to live with these emotional wrecks while also dealing with a pregnancy as well as her own grief at having lost a boyfriend she barely knew.
Like I said: Feste lays it on thick, and throughout the course of the movie, ratchets up the melodrama exponentially. Instead of opting for a quiet movie about grief that could’ve been completely devastating in its subtlety, Feste pulls out all the stops to make bloody goddamn sure she elicits a few tears.
Maybe it works, too. Maybe it works because you’re at home watching a movie on your computer screen on a Tuesday afternoon when no one else is around. And maybe you just let those tears rolls down because there’s no one to around to judge you, even as you scoff at the preposterousness of the plot turns. It’s cheap, and it’s cloying, and it’s predictable, but you tell yourself it’s OK because there are Oscar nominees in the film. And because it played at Sundance. And because resistance is futile, especially once Pierce Brosnan starts weeping like a helpless little boy.
That doesn’t make The Greatest a good film, though. It’s not. But as tear duct cleansers go, it gets the job done. And Carey Mulligan and Susan Sarandon’s presence in the film will make you feel considerably less guilty about it.