I’m not sure who the audience for terminal disease weepies is. Not me, for sure. But Our Friend is a remarkably good one. When we die, or as we die, the highs and lows of the life just lived end up being tallied. That’s what this film does, taking particular account of one high that would have passed unnoticed if something really bad hadn’t come along.
The high is Jason Segel as the titular Friend, the something really bad is the cancer diagnosis that Nicole (Dakota Johnson) receives. The action actually snakes back and forth through 14 years of the relationship between Nicole and her husband Matt (Casey Affleck) but it’s the diagnosis that’s the baseboard everything springs from and which propels Dane (Segel) back into their lives. On-screen words tell us how far in months or years we are from this central definitive Event.
As the story opens, it’s some years before. Dane has just asked Nicole out, only to discover she’s married. Cue an awkward meeting shortly after with her husband (Affleck), a variation on the meet-cute, when it’s not-at-all clear that floppy haired, slouching, massively unsure-of-himself Dane is going to feature at all in the lives of bright go-getting Matt and Nicole. From inauspicious beginnings etc.
Some years down the line, Dane now has his hair brushed back but is still living in low-status land, much to the befuddlement of current girlfriend Kat (Marielle Scott). Selling hockey gear for a living, riding his own waves of self-doubt, he’s not much of a catch.
And then the call comes. Nicole has cancer. It’s terminal. Dane drops everything and heads back to his home town to help out – making sandwiches for Matt and Nicole’s kids, driving them to school, mangling Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me, Maybe to make them laugh, taking the dog to the vet to be put down (!) – so the family can map the new landscape. He moves in with them, becoming an honorary uncle. In other circumstances he’d be the fifth wheel.
The “loser” – as pretty much all of Nicole and Matt’s friends see him – comes good, to the point where his own relationship suffers. That’s what’s being scrutinised and celebrated: the extent to which a person will help another person or persons out.
Against the current situation, we learn more about Nicole and Matt from the oscillating timeline, which goes back to reveal that struggling journalist Matt got a big break and became a war correspondent, neglecting his family into the bargain. That Nicole might have had a dalliance with someone. It’s the story of a marriage in snapshots – happy but with its ups and downs.
Even adding these details, the terminal-illness weepie’s demands assert themselves. And so we get familiar elements. Nicole’s bucket list, the wigs and headscarves, the rallies and collapses, the pills and the medical interventions, too fragrant for some apparently but how much suffering do you really want to see? And, eventually, the palliative care nurse and… the end.
It’s familiar but it doesn’t feels rote. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s background is in documentary – you might have seen the powerful Blackfish, about a killer whale driven murderous by captivity – and she brings a fresh eye to familiar situations, helped by the actors who rise to the challenge in scenes lifted by ad-libbing.
Johnson – who somehow brought dignity to her ridiculous sex-slave role in 50 Shades of Grey – also gets out unscathed here, generating empathy without squeaking into mawkishness. It is a great cast all round, not just Segel, Johnson and Affleck but also the support characters, who all arrive on screen fully formed. Like Aaron (Jake Owen), boyfriend of Nicole’s best friend Charlotte (Denée Benton), who looks from a distance like an asshole and who turns out, when we properly meet him, to be an asshole. Or Faith (Cherry Jones) the nurse who comes in for Nicole’s last days – sweet, efficient, seen-it-all, core of steel.
Friend Segel recedes a touch as Nicole’s end looms, as you’d expect from a film expanded from a piece written for Esquire magazine by Matt Teague, who was writing about his own life and wife.
The broken timeline wasn’t there in Teague’s original piece, but Brad Inglesby’s adaptation, and Cowperthwaite’s direction shift the emphasis. The arc still runs from health to death, but the broken chronology allows Nicole to be glimpsed again as vividly alive even as she’s slipping away, and for friendship, not just death, to stake a claim.
I am an Amazon affiliate
© Steve Morrissey 2021