by Philip Price
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Starring: Jason Segel, Dakota Johnson & Casey Affleck
Runtime: 2 hours & 4 minutes
I'd like to start with Jason Segel. I've always felt a unique affinity for his persona. This is a guy who has been oddly engaging yet completely endearing and - most importantly - both effortlessly funny and likable since his cameo as a high-school stoner who couldn't help Jennifer Love-Hewitt find Ethan Embry in “Can't Hardly Wait.” In many ways Segel is an unlikely movie star whether it be his awkward charisma, his laid back persona as opposed to the traditionally handsome and self-serious stars who are typically granted the more dramatic leading roles, but while "movie star" may be a stretch for anyone these days Segel has carved out a particular spot for himself among the recognizable faces on posters to which we now attribute the word "star". As one of the many funny guys doing as they please in Hollywood after originally making their bones in Judd Apatow projects, Segel has had an interesting journey. He never had the headlining Apatow treatment necessarily but served enough time in supporting parts to garner an Apatow-production via a script that was obviously very personal to him. It was with “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (some 13 years ago now) that Segel finally came into his own with what fully displayed his personal brand of comedy and it killed. Absolutely destroyed, one might say. ‘Sarah Marshall’ is one of the best comedies of the last 20 years and much of that has to do not just with Segel's willingness to be vulnerable which felt a lot fresher and a lot bolder in 2008, but largely it deals in that extreme sense of sincerity the guy generates. One can't help but think Segel is probably a little strange, but that he also has this cool streak that makes you want to hang out with him. He's not an immediately striking presence, but the more you unravel his philosophy the more you want to hug him. The one-two punch of ‘Sarah Marshall’ and “I Love You, Man” seemed to set Segel's career trajectory in stone, but after a good mix of ill-performing studio productions (“Gulliver's Travels,” “Bad Teacher”) and better, more personal milestones (“The Muppets,” “The Five-Year Engagement”) Segel's ride seemed to culminate only some six years after it began with the bomb of a summer comedy that was “Sex Drive” and the fact his long-running hit sitcom, “How I Met Your Mother,” ended its run that same year. In 2015, Segel portrayed David Foster Wallace opposite Jesse Eisenberg in “The End of the Tour,” but while this served as a potential hint as to where the actor would take his career next, he has since largely been absent from the public eye (only appearing in two Netflix films in 2017 and 2018). I say all of this to say that as Segel returns in a more substantial role both in film as well as in the public consciousness that it finally seems the space, he now occupies personally has synced with the space he occupies onscreen. It's possible there isn't a more perfect part for Segel than that of Dane Faucheux as it utilizes his vulnerabilities, his comedic sense, and his genuine spirit to convey the wholly compassionate titular friend of Gabriela Cowperthwaite's “Our Friend,” a man who visits his friends over Thanksgiving break and ends up staying with them for over two years in order to help care for the couple and their two young daughters as they deal with a terminal cancer diagnosis.
Based on Matthew Teague's 2015 article for Esquire magazine titled "The Friend" his six-thousand-plus word essay details the years where he and Faucheux cared for his wife, Nicole, who learned she had terminal cancer at the age of 34. As someone who will turn 34 this year and has two small children at home this immediately strikes a certain kind of chord; that should be noted up front. In the article, Teague is brutally honest about the putrefaction of human life under the control of a terrible disease like cancer. For Nicole, it was ovarian, and in the movie as with the article the doctor describes the situation being, "Like somebody dipped a paintbrush in cancer and flicked it around her abdomen." The difference in the article and the resulting film though, is that there is less focus on the grotesque aspects of Nicole's deterioration and more emphasis on the void left by her partnership that Faucheux helps to fill while counter-balancing the exhaustion Teague experiences throughout the two-year ordeal. It's difficult to equate a piece of written text with the individual moments that actually took place and the memories spawned from those moments that are undoubtedly made-up of an amalgamation of contrasting emotions, but Teague's article distills this journey down in a fashion that feels honest, unflinching, as well as - for one reason or another - almost reassuring and the movie version largely does the same.
The idea of this existence of death not as a personified reaper, but simply as an act and the finality of it is in the essence of Teague's words. Those words have been applied to the screen by “The Way Back” scribe Brad Ingelsby, so there is some familiarity with death and grief through the language of cinema, but in “Our Friend” Ingelsby is not dealing so much with grief after the fact - he's dealing in a bond that allows our main characters to survive the grief they know is coming. And while Teague and Faucheux are the focus of the film, Ingelsby's screenplay almost feels as if it wants to pull away further from the article and explore this dynamic from the point of view of Nicole which we only get hints of in Teague's original story. It would seem Ingelsby wants to extract that essence concerning the finality of death and apply it to what that means to those dealing with it directly; what it really means to stare down mortality. There are hints of this in Cowperthwaite's film as well, but overall, the movie version of this very moving yet devastating story seems to understand this essay was largely a way for Teague to work through what those two years and the people involved in those times meant to him in the larger context of his existence and how those experiences would shape his existence moving forward. Therefore, Cowperthwaite approaches the film with this mentality of Nicole's suffering being the timeline that maps the friendship the story is actually about.
While it may be easier to glean why Segel's sincerity is so key to the film's success now, the movie version of Teague's life also needed to cast a Teague and a Nicole in order to make the energy between the core trio work in an effective manner. In something of an unexpected turn, Casey Affleck fills the role of Matthew Teague while the always reliable Dakota Johnson takes the role of Nicole. It's not necessarily unexpected that Affleck would take on a role where the most demanding facets are devastation and loss but having this signature dourness be underscored with the levity that Segel as Dane brings is a highlight of Affleck's performance. While the article this story is based on was solely from the perspective of the real Teague and he is therefore not so much a character in that piece as he is the narrator, it would then seem Affleck had the most challenging task in bringing Teague out from behind the curtain and into the fold of a time in his life the writer likely had no desire to re-live. It's not as if Affleck has never dealt in comedy, just look to his work in the ‘Ocean's’ films, but his temperament here is perfect for the kind of compounded tragedies that Teague faces as Affleck portrays the man as someone desperately in need of help, but who bears the weight of guilt after having been away from his family on assignment for many of the years prior. Without spoiling much of the intricacies of the story, there are notable liberties seemingly taken with the relationship between the characters of Matthew and Nicole that add a certain disheartened quality to the proceedings, but ultimately deepen the bond between the two given the lengths Matthew goes to; Matthew's devotion overriding the disheartening with the altruistic. Johnson, who has done nothing but carve out a winning persona since her completion on the ‘Fifty Shades’ franchise, is strapped with both the least to work with (there's only so much one can do when literally evaporating before your friends and family's eyes) while also serving as the anchor that pulls our two more prominent protagonists together. Johnson does much of her heavy lifting in early scenes that fill in the gaps around how these three met and became friends while Nicole and Dane were in college and how the relationship between Dane and Matthew evolved out of it. Teague's article describes his wife by saying, "Men trailed Nicole everywhere; when she smiled, men imagined she needed them, and she smiled a lot." Johnson emanates this kind of raw magnetism combined with the anger that builds around what her disease is taking from her and the jealousy that resonates in a reaction to what her husband and her friend are building together for her, but ultimately without her.
And so, while the characters are clearly the beating heart of a movie such as this the looming question is always whether the film accomplishes what it set out to accomplish in the end. While “Our Friend” is not necessarily as lean as it needs to be it gets the job done. That might sound slightly dismissive, but it's nearly impossible not to feel something while watching the film. Is this a movie anyone will love? Probably not, but that's no fault of the craft involved - it's simply due to the painful nature of the subject matter. Did it make me feel something? Did it genuinely movie me? Of course, it did. Absolutely destroyed, one might say. The film's biggest detraction is the structure with which Ingelsby has organized his screenplay. The film begins in the fall of 2013, goes back in time 13 years, then jumps forward to 2012, then goes back to the summer of 2008 and so on and so forth to the point it's difficult to get a grasp on any one aspect of who these people are at a given point in time because it jumps around so frequently to different stages in their life and furthermore, to different stages of Nicole's diagnosis. That said, there is a degree of appreciation in the choice especially given many of the flashbacks lend the more emotionally crushing scenes some much needed stability. Minor complaints aside though, this is a movie largely about what it means to be a friend to someone and it is through this non-linear fashion that we come to learn not only how much Matthew and Nicole along with their two daughters, Molly (Isabella Kai) and Evie (Violet McGraw), mean to Segel's Dane, but how much they mean to him.
While I've already talked at length about why Segel is perfect for the role of Dane I haven't mentioned as much why Dane is so crucial to the extent, he became the central point of a piece of writing that was originally intended to be about a man's dying wife. This recalls another set of flashbacks in both the time the film takes to spend solely with the Dane character as well as a moment that exemplifies the level of brutal honesty that can be shared between Faucheux and Teague. At a certain stage in the film Affleck's Matthew is playing the selfish, asshole of a husband who resents his family for holding him back from his own endeavors and his friend has to be the one to call him on it. It's a quick interaction, but it's one the movie uses to jump to another point in time right after and therefore puts an emphasis on both the arc of Teague as well as the true importance of Faucheux's presence in his life at this critical, heartbreaking juncture. In terms of the time the film spends with Faucheux on his own though, we are granted the realization that the character is not simply a martyr but is in fact more complex; as much help and support as he's providing his friends, he's getting something that's missing from his life as well. In the first act of the film, we see that Faucheux has a semi-serious job and relationship with a woman in his hometown of New Orleans that naturally both disintegrate after having taken an extended leave. Whether Faucheux is running away from what are more serious commitments than he'd ever made in his life up to that point or not there seems this overriding sense that helping his friends face the end of their relationship was more important than following through on the beginning of his. That act in and of itself feels selfless, but because he knew he was needed by his friends and was unsure of what he wanted to do with his life there is a level of both dependency and escape in Faucheux's choice. Segel fully comprehends the function of this character in this regard and brings that necessary authenticity that makes it work. “Our Friend” is sad. This is a sad, sensitive movie and while it may not be something you want to necessarily snuggle down with on a Friday night it is the type of movie that, at the very least, is a reminder to us all that we can never fully realize or comprehend the emotional depths those around us might be experiencing and that we should always try our best to mindful of that by not being a Jake Owen, but by being more a Jason Segel.