Over-the-top grief makes this supposedly sad flick seem silly.
What I learned from The Greatest, Shane Feste’s extremely misleadingly titled debut, is that Pierce Brosnan cries about as well as he sings. (And as my PW colleague Matt Prigge pointed out, “he sounds like a walrus doing both.”) A soppy chunk of Hallmark grief-porn, it’s a teary-eyed death-sploitation opus from which nobody in the talented cast emerges with any dignity intact.
We begin with the deflowering of Rose (Carey Mulligan, who thanks to An Education, I guess is now a staple of modern indie cinema). The young lass is on a lovely first date with her high school crush Bennett (Aaron Johnson)—their cornball idyll rudely interrupted when they’re sideswiped by a semi. (I can think of a lot of movie dates that should end this way.)
Abrupt cut to the boy’s funeral, when Feste offers a marvel of restraint and suggestion, holding the camera still for a phenomenally uncomfortable amount of time on his parents (Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon) and Bennett’s brother Ryan (Johnny Simmons) as they ride home from the ceremony in the back of a limousine. The shell-shocked family wordlessly faces forward, unable to even look one another in the eye for the duration of the ride. In this moment The Greatest tastefully hints at an unfathomable sense of loss, promising a far better movie that we’re sadly not going to be seeing anytime soon.
Three months later, Rose turns up on the family’s doorstep, all knocked up with nowhere to go. Brosnan immediately overcompensates, inviting her into the house and allowing her to decorate the guest room in the kind of quirky annoying fashion you only ever see from starlets in low-budget movies. But Sarandon wants none of it. Susan’s not just sad—she’s in hysterical agony. There’s not a piece of scenery left unchewed by the actress, shrieking and caterwauling as if she’s still in The Lovely Bones. (As Susan Sarandon already played this same grieving mother with grace in 2002’s Moonlight Mile, there’s an argument here for diminishing returns.)
The truck’s driver (Michael Shannon) is still in a coma, so Sarandon visits every day, reading to him from Ellison’s Invisible Man. (WTF?) She’s hoping he’ll awaken with some sort of shattering revelation about her son’s final 17 minutes on this mortal coil, and as the melodramatic rigging in Feste’s screenplay becomes more gratingly obvious, you can set your watch as to when he’ll wake up and drop a truth bomb.
Brosnan refuses to deal with his son’s death, trying to play the dutiful father and take care of business. The actor plays denial quite nicely, distracted and meandering his way through mundane tasks, never quite seeming entirely present in conversation. Alas, The Greatest has an aversion to such quiet. Before long, Brosnan’s tossing Sarandon in the ocean, suffering a psychosomatic heart attack, and sobbing at top volume to be heard over the violins on the soundtrack.
Little brother Ryan gets shafted by the story, stuck recovering from his crippling marijuana addiction (!?!) and picking up chicks at grief counseling sessions. His initially generous portions of screen time dwindle as the picture goes on. By the final reels he’s an afterthought.
Instead we’re treated to unintentionally hilarious sequences like the one where Rose is in labor, running the woods with her new surrogate family, clutching her high school yearbook and asking inane questions about the love of her life, with whom she went on exactly one date. (In a twist that would make Nicholas Sparks jealous, it turns these two crazy kids were in love from afar since freshman year, but didn’t have the courage to even speak to one another until the day before graduation, upon which you’ll recall they were both hit by a truck.)
Feste obviously has a lot to say about death and the grieving process, but The Greatest is so klutzy, and undoes any goodwill with such ludicrous melodramatic flourishes, the tear-jerking ending left me in stitches.
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