Is there any emotion harder to portray on film than grief? Where other emotions generally have obvious physical manifestations, grief is often completely internalized, leaving it up to actors and filmmakers to find ways of conveying that a character is grieving even when he or she isn’t actively weeping. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. And there are few things more cringe-inducing than watching an actor have a complete emotional breakdown while you, the viewer, feel nothing.
That was my experience with “The Greatest,” an uncomfortable misfire from first-time writer/director Shana Feste. She’s blessed with good intentions, a few good ideas, and a terrific cast, but the film — replete with clunky dialogue and questionable plot elements — feels like a first draft.
It begins with the tragic death of a teenager named Bennett Brewer (Aaron Johnson), a promising and popular young man who leaves behind an adoring younger brother, Ryan (Johnny Simmons), and parents Allen (Pierce Brosnan) and Grace (Susan Sarandon). He also leaves behind a girlfriend of sorts, Rose (Carey Mulligan), who happened to get pregnant on their last night together. Having no place to go (the movie makes vague references to an unsupportive mother), Rose moves in with the Brewers. It’s “Juno” meets “Ordinary People”!
Everyone is dealing with Bennett’s death in a different stereotypical way. Grace has gone a bit nutty, obsessing over the details of what happened between the car wreck and Bennett’s death, 17 minutes later. Allen refuses to talk about his son. Ryan is on drugs (he appears to have been doing that before his brother died, though) and attends a support group for those who have suffered losses. Here he meets Ashley (Zoe Kravitz), who lost a sister (but watch for the bafflingly out-of-nowhere twist in that unnecessary subplot!).
Pregnant Rose is doing OK, all things considered, but she didn’t actually know Bennett very well. In flashbacks, we see their last day together, while in the present she seeks information from Allen and Grace, neither of whom wants to talk. The idea of a pregnant girl being a family’s last link to their dead son is compelling, and the way Feste tells this part of the story is praiseworthy.
Surrounding it, however, is a lot of dialogue that’s too on-the-nose, too here’s-someone-spelling-out-exactly-what-the-movie’s-ideas-are. Conversations that ought to be delicate and nuanced — like the one where Rose shows up and tells Bennett’s dad that she’s pregnant — are instead boiled down to blunt sentences. It sounds like placeholder dialogue, the stuff a writer puts in to remind herself what points the scene needs to make, with the intention of prettying it up later … except Feste never got around to that. We’re left with the mechanical, obvious dialogue.
Things like Allen’s past infidelity and Ryan’s drug problem are thrown in to make the film more “real” and “gritty,” yet they serve no actual purpose. Meanwhile, the movie skips the part where Rose feels unwelcome and runs off, picking up with the Brewers begging her to come back and the audience wondering, “Wait, when did she leave?”
In the performance department, Carey Mulligan as Rose and Johnny Simmons as Ryan put their elders to shame. Mulligan, a British actress who hasn’t been seen much yet on this side of the pond, is bound to hit it big if she keeps giving sharp, honest performances like this one; Simmons, recently seen in “Hotel for Dogs,” is likewise genuine here.
Strangely, it’s the old pros Sarandon and Brosnan who are the most off-target. The weak screenplay doesn’t help, but neither do embarrassing moments like the one where Allen finally breaks down and sobs, or Sarandon’s crazy scene with the driver (Michael Shannon) of the other car from Bennett’s accident. Sarandon and Brosnan are doing too much capital-A Acting, rather than letting their emotions play out naturally.
D+ (1 hr., 38 min.; )