United States, 2010
U.S. Release Date:
R (Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio:
Pierce Brosnan, Susan Sarandon, Carey Mulligan, Johnny Simmons, Aaron Johnson, Zoe Kravitz, Michael Shannon, Jennifer Ehle
What a waste of a talented cast! There are times when it can be depressing to see so much acting potential wasted on a script unable to elicit the best from its stars, and this is one such occasion. Although The Greatest can boast a few excellent isolated scenes, the movie as a whole is a melodramatic mess - a mawkish and unconvincing tear-jerker that wants to say something profound about the impact of an unexpected death on a family, but falls so far short that comparisons to the likes of In the Bedroom and Ordinary People feel almost sacrilegious.
The premise of The Greatest promises something more interesting than the soap opera level at which the majority of the story is pitched. One summer day, 18-year old Rose (Carey Mulligan), who is broke and has nowhere to stay, arrives at the front door to the upper middle-class house occupied by the Brewer family. It seems she is three months pregnant by the oldest of the two Brewer sons, Bennett (Aaron Johnson), who died in a car accident on the night the baby was conceived. Rose has decided not to abort the child and, with her mother unable to provide emotional support, she has elected to seek out Bennett's family. Although Allen (Pierce Brosnan) welcomes her with restrained enthusiasm, Grace (Susan Sarandon) is openly hostile. Bennett's younger brother, Ryan (Johnny Simmons), is curious about Rose - he was the only Brewer who knew about her existence before her surprise arrival. It quickly becomes apparent that none of the Brewers are coping well with Bennett's death. Allen is bottling everything up, Grace is obsessing over her son's final 17 minutes, and Ryan is living in denial. It doesn't take long for Rose to realize she has stumbled into a hornet's nest of repressed grief and unresolved anger.
As a portrait of the implications of a tragedy, The Greatest is too over-the-top to be accepted on its own terms. Emotions feel forced and the ending is not earned. There's a pervasive sense that writer/director Shana Feste will do anything to wring tears from her audience and this leads to scenes and performances (most notably the one in which one of the character's defenses crumble) that are borderline cringe-inducing. The impact of grief on an unstable family can be difficult to effectively dramatize, but successful endeavors like the aforementioned In the Bedroom recognize that reticence is a crucial ingredient. There's nothing understated or restrained about the way in which Feste approaches her characters or their circumstances. She's as subtle as the proverbial jackhammer and trades in clichés and obviously scripted moments of artificial catharsis.
That's not to say there's nothing worthwhile in The Greatest. Feste has crafted a number of small, quiet scenes that play effectively on their own, divorced from the overall melodrama. One of the best is the moment in which Rose confesses to Allen how she first met Bennett. There's honesty in the dialogue and both actors are convincing. Most of the flashbacks that build the relationship between Rose and Bennett are also credible. In fact, the love story, which is mostly presented after the fact, is touching - how these two passed each other every day of high school without saying a word and fell for each other through glances, then spent one glorious afternoon and night in each other's company before everything changed. Sadly, Feste's hit-and-miss deftness of touch is more "miss" than "hit," and this makes The Greatest a source of disappointment and frustration.
The high-profile cast is anchored by Susan Sarandon and Pierce Brosnan, but they are easily the weakest links. Sarandon simply isn't very good and Brosnan, who has been busy lately (also appearing in Ghost Writer and Remember Me), is uneven. For the most part, he's believable but his biggest scene is the one in which he stumbles the most obviously. Johnny Simmons has some nice moments although, like Brosnan, he is at his weakest when displaying strong emotions. Carey Mulligan, with her flashing eyes and pixie haircut, doesn't standout as obviously as she did in An Education, but she's the best thing about The Greatest. Notable supporting turns are provided by the likes of Zoe Kravatz (as Ryan's girlfriend), Jennifer Ehle (as Allen's mistress), and Michael Shannon (as a coma patient Grace with whom Grace becomes obsessed).
While it's true that everyone reacts differently to loss, movies often overplay the power of grief in order to elicit a reaction from the audience. Feste's manipulation is awkward and unsophisticated and, as a result, her movie exists upon a foundation of artifice. Even those who succumb to the director's clumsy ministrations and shed a few tears are unlikely to leave The Greatest with the feeling of 90 minutes well spent. Viewer satisfaction, even when it's of a bittersweet variety, demands a connection to the characters and their circumstances. Such a thing requires an emotional honesty that is too often missing from this production.
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