Navigating suicide for tragi-comedic purposes is hardly a bad idea, but A Long Way Down comes undone at just about every turn. Armed to the teeth with dialogue and structure seemingly ripped straight from the original Nick Hornby novel, it aims for the easy-breezy feel of a Richard Curtis picture, but misses through a lacklustre tone that flips between smarmy banter and hokey montages. These do nothing either to hide the litany of contrivances that drive the plot, or to keep the whole affair from feeling completely disposable.
On New Year’s Eve in London, disgraced broadcaster Martin Sharp (Pierce Brosnan) lugs a ladder to the top of a skyscraper. He intends to throw himself off it, though you wouldn’t know it from the oddly perky sight gags and music that come before. Just as he’s on the brink and second-guessing himself, Toni Collette interrupts as Maureen, a spinster and fellow suicidal with a shy demeanour that is barely moved away from for the rest of the film. She is utterly superseded by Jess, a hyper-articulate but distraught teen played with mugging fervour by Imogen Poots, who wouldn’t-you-know-it is also looking to jump to her end. Aaron Paul then appears as a fledgling American musician, looking hilariously bored but supposedly wanting to die too. Backing out of their identical plans, the four end up having the most bawdy night out that the production budget allows, then decide that their despair binds them in spiritual kinship, and pledge to re-schedule offing themselves for Valentine’s Day in the coming year. In the process, the media turns their plight into a news sensation, catalysed by Jess being the daughter of a prominent British MP played by a rigid Sam Neill, and further tedious adventures ensue.
The premise is where the trouble starts. The notion that these people would procrastinate killing themselves is never sold effectively, no matter how much Poots waxes lyrical on the matter. What’s worse is that some sections suggest a genuinely unusual but undeveloped approach both to the mindset of suicidal individuals and to the media complex that utterly misunderstands their motives. This is mostly restricted to small exchanges, undoubtedly taken from the novel, that have a curious way of looking past simple characterisations of depression. “I don’t mind the pain,” says Aaron Paul’s JJ in one perplexing observation. “It’s the hope that kills me.” Also maybe-compelling is the revelation that Maureen would have left behind her disabled son, which would seem a bold move for a film trying to curry sympathy and goodwill. It’s unfortunate that the movie has no narrative or visual complexity to match this left-of-centre view, since its flat style in all areas pleads for approval in the most unambiguous ways possible.
The script also never stops feeling like a shonky pare-down of existing material, since plot elements come and go on a whim like remnants of an overly faithful first draft. Sharp’s public fall from grace, for example, distracts in its lewdness but is mentioned so fleetingly as to only detract from our impression of him, leaving no stronger characteristics than a tendency towards snarky one-liners. There are segments that reintroduce each character as though we’re switching to their perspective, but those are all rendered completely arbitrary by the wandering narrative that swaps points of view on a whim.1 The end result feels so scattered that it diffuses the charm of the conversations, since it’s unclear why they’re happening or where the rest of the story is even going.
Visual stagnancy is the strongest, most persistent problem. The editing style feels breathless, which is not to suggest a rapid pace akin to the Luc Besson works that director Pascal Chaumeil previously assisted on, but a rote one that clicks through sequences like PowerPoint slides of the book’s CliffsNotes. The best distiller of this is a second-act closer where the foursome fight in a restaurant, in a marvelous display of cluttered blocking and uncontrolled acting by Brosnan and company. This where A Long Way Down‘s lack of direction threatens to send it careening into unwatchability, but to brand the movie with that label would be making it sound less forgettable than it is, as much so as the Coldplay track that underscores the most simpering of its many emotion-milking montages.
Adding to the annoyance is the over-acting from some of the main cast. Poots, as I mentioned, strains herself in a performance that’s aggravating in how unbridled and undirected it is. On the far other end of the spectrum is Aaron Paul, who I love here almost more than in Breaking Bad, precisely because he doesn’t appear to give a single shit. His sauntering, face-rubbing style makes for a perfect audience insert when placed against the wild over-acting of the main players around him. As for those players, Brosnan comes across much of the same problems as Poots but tempers them by being game to mock himself, Collette plays out a flat set of shuffling tics, and Sam Neill looks disinterested for all of the five or ten minutes he’s onscreen.
Still, for all its tone-deafness, A Long Way Down will inspire half-attentive daytime TV screenings before any kind of worst-of-the-year infamy. With such paltry theatrical takings worldwide, it’s not like it’s sucking away time and money on any grand scale. The film is so confused and attention-craving that it’s unlikely to hook in the older demographic that appreciated a similar genteel tone in Best Exotic Marigold Hotel et al. It’s a perfectly ineffective non-starter that will benefit very few watchers, and that might be the saddest fate of all.