Jason Segel, Dakota Johnson, and Casey Affleck forge a treacly, generous bond in a drama that almost drowns in its own schmaltz.
Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Our Friend stumbles from a surfeit of generosity. It’s perhaps inevitable given the scope of its approach. Adapted by screenwriter Brad Ingelsby from Matt Teague’s 2013 Esquire feature, the cancer drama vainly juggles the perspectives of three close-knit friends (Matt, Dane, and Nicole) as they weather the effects and repercussions of Nicole’s (Dakota Johnson) terminal cancer.
These events weigh heavily on Matt (Casey Affleck, we’ll talk about that casting shortly) who begins the film extinguished by parenthood to his two daughters (the underdeveloped Violet McGraw and Isabella Kai) and as a caregiver to his deteriorating wife. Dane (Jason Segel) – their mutual best friend – is a balm, attempting to create some semblance of normalcy for the beleaguered family. As a man who sets up long-term camp in the proverbial eye of the storm, he’s an indispensable source of physical and moral support for each member of the family.
The film is at its most successful when prioritizing Dane. His character provides a clear-eyed perspective of the waves of regular hospital visits, nonexistent sleep patterns, and familial tension. And as played by Segel, the actor’s resting hangdog charm draws out the lightness of these events without descending into shtick. He’s a textbook case of arrested development in his inability to commit to his girlfriend, Kat (Marielle Scott), but Ingelsby and Cowperthwaite mine a deep inadequacy in his character, which implicitly explains his devotion to the family.
Not all of this soul searching works – an extended interlude in the desert with a German backpacker (Gwendoline Christie) falls flat – but there’s a disarming dimension to Segel’s adjacent position that comes across with a mixture of polite distance, discomfort with the intimate, and camouflaged anger about his friends’ pain. An early scene deftly crystallizes this role as the camera cuts back and forth between Dane goofing around with the daughters on an outside swing and Matt and Nicole inside the house discussing the proper language to tell their kids that their mom is going to die. It’s a heartrending scene on its own and made more difficult as the camera stays with Dane as he hears the kids’ anguished sobs at the news.
But while this visual strategy works well here, Cowperthwaite and DP Joe Anderson over-rely on this restrained method of framing and lighting, later using it to mute arguments or offer multiple perspectives in a difficult conversation. This motif first plays as satisfyingly digressive, but it also highlights a reluctance to engage with the most challenging aspects of this story. Teague’s original article is undeniably a difficult read, full of graphic details about Nicole’s crumbling form and an encroaching nihilism – but there’s a bracing clarity to its form. In this adaptation, Ingelsby and Cowperthwaite try to give equal time and texture to each of their three leads, but the episodic structure – which regularly shifts between periods before and after the diagnosis – struggles to communicate either the progression of their friendship or their changing attitudes about her decline.
A large part of the issue is Casey Affleck’s casting as Matt. Affleck’s performance brews with intensity, but he lacks conviction with either Dane as his best friend or as a person who Nicole would fall for. From beginning to end, Affleck’s performance is a continuum of his wounded, mumbling persona. As is the case with Affleck in roles like Manchester By the Sea or Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, his performance is unpracticed in its exhaustion, but tediously static. That’s to say nothing of the optics of the character’s protracted martyrdom and instant rage in juxtaposition with Affleck’s own real-life allegations.
From beginning to end, Affleck’s performance is a continuum of his wounded, mumbling persona.
These choices would all be less problematic if it felt like there was any kind of arc or changing demeanor with people he ostensibly likes. Whether he’s hanging out with Dane or trying to charm Nicole, his voice isn’t only a low grumble, but he seems uninterested in whatever he’s engaging with at a given time whether it’s his profession as a writer or driving his girls to school.
Johnson, on the other hand, isn’t always well-modulated when it comes to her big emotional swings, but she’s a beacon of magnetism as a presence and the ideal mother in her warm, encouraging parenting. And as the film takes its final hard pivot into tearjerker mode, she incrementally lowers her mask and unleashes her constant pain and violent emotion. In these sequences, Cowperthwaite smartly shows the ways that best friends and family fade away in the hardest moments and the whole affair gains an element of profound disappointment. The addition of the underrated Cherry Jones as a hospice nurse late in the run-time also brings a welcome gravitas to these latter sequences.
All of these decisions are largely frustrating in how they hint at a much darker and more challenging film. It could have easily felt too miserable without balance, but one that didn’t feel the need to overstuff its story with so many pieces of complicated relationships. As it exists now, Cowperthwaite’s film is well-intentioned, but it needed to fully tell one person’s story.
Our Friend is currently available on demand.