Thursday, January 21, 2021

A looming death takes over many lives

      In the spring of 2015, Esquire published what would become a prize-winning article by journalist Matthew Teague. Teague took an unusual approach to the subject of dying, opting for vivid descriptions of the assaults on his wife's cancer-riddled body.
     "We don't tell each other the truth about dying, as a people. Not real dying. Real dying, regular and mundane dying, is so hard and so ugly that it becomes the worst thing of all: It's grotesque. It's undignified," Teague wrote.
     Teague's article wasn't long, but it included graphic details of what happened to Nicole Teague's body after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. 
     Another aspect of the article involved Teague's friend Dane Faucheux, a man who helped Teague and his wife in what amounted to a heroic, perhaps unexplainable act of friendship. 
     Faucheux  abandoned his life in New Orleans, moved into the Teague's Alabama home, helped care for the couple's two young daughters, and even took the family pet to the vet to be put down. Matthew was too immersed in Nicole's travails to deal with another death.
     If you read the Esquire article, it's nothing short of astonishing to think that anyone would make a movie based on Teague's story. It's difficult to imagine that audiences would want to spend a couple of hours looking at the bodily dissolutions that Teague's article dutifully reports.
     I suppose it's no surprise then that director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and screenwriter Brad Ingelsby have taken a softer approach to Teague's story in Our Friend. With Casey Affleck as Matthew, Dakota Johnson as Nicole, and Jason Segel as Dane, the movie is less about the indignities of dying than the  ways in which Nicole's dying impacts an entire family. 
    Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) has become a master of miserable, an actor who's able to incorporate gloom into his entire being. The skill obviously serves him well in Our Friend
     Johnson seems equally well-suited to portray a vibrant young woman with an interest in musical theater. 
     It falls to Segel to create the movie's most complicated and in some ways least understandable character, a lovable guy who's  capable of amazing generosity but incapable of sustaining romantic relationships.
     Dane first meets Nicole when the two are working in theater in New Orleans. He's smitten but learns that Nicole already is married. He stays in her life, though, becoming a good friend to Matthew and to Nicole, even as other of their friends find him weird, even a bit pathetic.
    Cowperthwaite tells the story in fragments that hopscotch through time, painting a portrait of relationships that are tested by Nicole's diagnosis, which becomes the anchoring event for a movie that flashes back and forward from that painful moment. 
    Playing with time has mixed results, pushing us into episodes in which Matthew works as a war correspondent while a frustrated Nicole holds down the home front, scenes in which Dane gives up on relationships of his own to be a helpful friend, and even a bout of marital infidelity that nearly topples the Teague marriage.
     We get just enough about the Teague daughters (Violet McGraw and Isabella Kai) to keep that aspect of the story from feeling neglected. 
    The impact of this time-scattered approach tends to rob the movie of its capacity to build, sometimes creates confusion, and  puts a heavier burden on incident than on allowing the characters to deepen. 
     Still, Cowperthwaite and her cast make you feel how inadequate we all are when it comes to facing a devastating loss -- and how improbably selfless people sometimes can be. Maybe that's enough to encourage us to overlook the movie's flaws. 
     By the way, you may well ask, is Our Friend a tearjerker? Hell, yes.


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