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Review: Nick Hornby's 'A Long Way Down' becomes a trite comedy about suicide

"A Long Way Down," Nick Hornby's 2006 novel about four suicidal people who become friends, gets a movie that loses most of the language and tone.

A typically upbeat scene from the suicide comedy "A Long Way Down." Credit: Magnolia PIctures A typically upbeat scene from the suicide comedy "A Long Way Down."
Credit: Magnolia PIctures

'A Long Way Down'
Director: Pascal Chaumeil
Stars: Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collette
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

Suicide, like any touchy subject, should never be off-limits to comedy. But tone is important. The one adopted by “A Long Way Down,” the latest take on a Nick Hornby novel, is not the one to use. It’s a broad, wacky comedy about broad, wacky friends, only the friends each find life so unbearable they’d rather end it all. This is not how it feels in the book, but such is what happens when you assume a usually very film-friendly author is always film-friendly.

Chief among a game cast is Pierce Brosnan, whose Martin is a disgraced television personality busted for statutory rape. The film handles this issue about as well as the suicide issue. He heads to a roof that offers a stunning view of London. But instead of leaping, he meets three others who’ve come there for the same reason: Maureen (Toni Collette), a shy woman with a sickly son; Jess (Imogen Poots), an extroverted party girl; and J.J. (Aaron Paul), a pizza delivery guy who says he has cancer.

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Hornby had hundreds of pages to prowl through the restless thoughts of his four characters. Largely stripped of their inner monologues, the same characters merely seem like they’re stuck in a crass sitcom. Jack Thorne’s script does give each one each access to the narration track, but parcels them out in small doses over the whole film. This theoretically works: We don’t know much about them until they pipe up on the narration track, revealing more than they would to each other, or anyone else. But it backfires: For most of the film everyone seems like caricatures. Jess in particular is hugely distracting — a blabber-mouthed goofball who cheapens the subject matter every time she’s onscreen.

Then again, Poots is almost singlehandedly responsible for what little fun occurs. And Collette is genuinely heartbreaking, not because of the ill kid — which could easily be read as a cheap cliche — but because she has so little self-worth. She’s the last to seize the narration track, and the ploy does work in deepening a character we realize almost too late we knew so little about. But that does mean we’re stuck with broad shenanigans, including a bizarre section where they milk their suicide attempts for celebrity. All the film of “A Long Way Down” has done has whittled the source down to the bare plot. And when stripped of Hornby’s seductive prose, the material seems trite and borderline offensive.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
 
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