Always laughing, why are they always laughing?
dir: Daniel Levy
So, with the new year freshly upon us, I thought in the spirit of new beginnings and optimism, I’d watch and review a movie about a dour group of depressed people navigating grief and loss in their late 30s early 40s.
Good Grief is perhaps the laziest play on words you could imagine, while also being a keen Charlie Brown - Peanuts reference that, yes, is mostly about a character dealing with his grief over the recent death of his husband Oliver (Luke Evans).
But really the film is mostly about not dealing with grief.
Our introduction is a delightful Christmas party where Oliver bullies people into singing individual parts for a singalong, except for the one person Sophie (the great Ruth Negga) who he insults by giving her a handcrafted pair of maracas to play, since she is, by all estimations, tone deaf. Oliver is charming and a force of nature, and beloved by all, so it’s triply cruel that mere minutes after saying goodbye to his husband Marc (Dan Levy, who also directs), he is killed in a car accident.
Now, these details shouldn’t be important, but they’re important to me: Oliver was the very successful author of a bunch of books that, considering the economic comfort within which the main character is cocooned in, probably makes him the equivalent of a Suzanne Collins / Rick Riordan YA author, rather than a JK Rowling-level threat to the aristocracy. And, this was very nice of him, he even got something for his husband Marc to do by having him do the illustrations in his books, which are a successful movie franchise as well.
The greater meaning behind it is that Marc had previously been a successful painter, or at least someone who painted. But, for whatever reasons (grief, derr, obviously), he stopped painting after his mother died. And instead of ever doing paintings again, he relied on his husband for work and remodelled the kitchen every time Oliver dropped a new bestseller.
Probably not healthy. And now that his husband is dead, well, Marc doesn’t know what to do with himself, and spends a year not doing anything.
If it sounds like I’m being glib about grief, or about the film’s treatment of grief, I assure you, I am not (at least not in my heart of hearts). Grief is…
It’s vast. We grieve so many things, so many parts of our lives. Of course we give preeminent status to grieving the death of a close loved one. But we lose so much and so many the longer we live, and it’s not just beloved family and friends.
And there’s grieving the end of a relationship as well. Or, in the case of one of the main characters, grieving that a relationship hasn’t ended yet, because jeez, that would be way easier.
So the main dynamic of the flick is that Marc is stuck in grief, that his former partner and best friend Thomas (Himesh Patel) is hung up on his ex, and Sophie is some kind of mess, blowing up her job and her relationship because of a fear of… something.
It’s not much of a dynamic. They hang out, alternately supporting and criticising each other, and not much changes over the course of the film. It’s amusing, don’t get me wrong, but it’s so low key, and isn’t swinging for the fences, dramatically speaking, so it all feels like a bunch of melancholy people being somewhat honest about their feelings at times, and being glib about their lack of ability in terms of “moving on”.
That’s always the expectation, isn’t it? You’re only supposed to grieve for a certain amount of time, and then you’re meant to put those feelings in a box and move on and pretend like it still isn’t a wound or a hole in your soul.
Marc’s not the moving on type, so while he’s grateful for his friends indulging him, he’s willing and able to stretch things out as long as he can, holding on to his perfect image of Oliver to heighten his sense of loss.
Against his will, he takes up his therapist’s recommendation to start some kind of process by at least opening the envelope on the Christmas card Oliver left for him Last Christmas just before he died.
Imagine how complicated Marc’s feelings might be upon reading the letter therein, and realising that it sounds like Oliver was planning on leaving him for someone else just before he died.
And you’ve spent a year mourning the fucker as the loss of the love of your life!
That’s about as melodramatic as the flick gets, which isn’t much. While there may be some elements of the story that take me slightly out of the flick, in terms of people comfortable and wealthy enough being able to (dishonestly) organise a trip to Paris for three people at the drop of a hat, I have no issues with any of the performances or where the flick does or doesn’t go.
Most people, for the majority of this flick, are unhappy, but get through the day to day of their lives. No-one has the answers, no-one has solutions. But they can still chat and be civil with each other and other people. They can be hurting but still delivering quips on demand. They can feel betrayed and say “I feel betrayed” to trusted friends, instead of having to deliver a massive monologue with swelling strings or “I am Spartacus!” moments. This feels more like life to me.
You either are a fan of the one character and one persona Dan Levy brings to everything – a funny, tetchy, charming, loving, acerbic, self-sabotaging doofus, or you’re not. If you know, you know. Levy is very much that character here, because this is his gig after all, and I am sure he directs himself accordingly. He is lovely in this, but then I would expect nothing less. I think he deliberately resists being overly showy in terms of direction because he doesn’t want to disrupt or distract from what is a melancholy and maudlin expression of life. And I really appreciated a lot of his very understated reaction shots. He’s underrated as an actor, and I think that’s a shame.
And that’s not a criticism, I’m not using the words melancholy or maudlin as negatives. I am a melancholy and maudlin expression of life myself, so something like this is my bread and butter. I love this kind of stuff, it’s like it’s made specifically for me. I also loved Ruth Negga’s take on her character, which is someone who seems like a hot mess fuck up / party girl, but is anything but, and manages to hide the depths of her raw need under her extravagant behaviour. Thomas is the most reticent of the three, the most reserved / dour, but he’s not trying to drag down the others with negativity, regardless of his fears. And he’s the most clear-eyed. And let’s face it: The other two need someone to call them on their bullshit, and he’s perfectly situated to do so.
They worked really well as a trio. Not everything works, but plenty does throughout.
I also want to mention David Bradley, who plays Oliver’s loving dad, who has a couple of scenes and nails them so splendidly. He speaks at Oliver’s funeral so casually, so eloquently, with much regret regardless of when he “accepted” his son’s sexuality, about how he metaphorically stood in his son’s way, not understanding or accepting him enough, soon enough. He regrets, at his son’s funeral, being an obstacle to Oliver’s hopes and dreams.
He has a lovely, loving scene at the end of the film as well. It’s especially good to see him get these opportunities, because despite the fact that he’s been in a million things over the years, he looms highest in my mind with his performance as the despicable Lord Walder Frey in the Game of Thrones tv series, which haunts me to this day. Not only because, as time passes, the more I make the mistake of looking in the mirror, the more often I occasionally see Walder Frey’s hairline glaring back at me.
Another veteran actor, being Celia Imrie, does golden work as Marc’s lawyer / financial adviser (what an exciting sounding role), having a couple of solid scenes, but then a tremendous one towards the end when she describes her own grief, and the way she walled herself off from life and love, after her wife’s death, as a gentle admonition to Marc that he not do the same.
I did so enjoy this film, but then its themes resonate deeply with me, and I liked the gentle treatment of it (even as I bristle at the bougie trappings), and the fact that there aren’t any grand revelations or epiphanies; just people eventually going where it is they need to go.
This won’t speak to all in the same manner, but it will speak to some.
8 times grief deepens like a coastal shelf, so get out early as you can, and don’t have kids yourself out of 10
“I’m sorry you have to deal with that, but I’m allowed to feel things too.” - Good Grief