Watching rich white people grieve quietly is an American artistic pastime. There’s just something about the incongruity of the hysteria of death set in the well-mannered households of Connecticut that writers, playwrights and film directors just can’t get enough of.
“The Greatest” is more or less like a lot of films you’ve seen before: the weepy story of a well-to-do family grieving over the sudden loss of a son (see “Bedroom, In the”; “People, Ordinary”). Like a lot of these movies, the death has already occurred — the family’s son Bennett (Aaron Johnson) has been killed in a car accident, his funeral has happened by the time the opening credits have finished rolling. Bennett’s death leaves a pregnant girl, a devastated family — and a hammy, overacted film.
Starring:Carey Mulligan, Pierce Brosnan, Susan Sarandon
Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon try their hardest, bless them, but are unable to transcend the script by Shana Feste, which is a jumbled, awkward series of twitches and mannerisms. Brosnan’s character is pretending he’s fine, but he hasn’t slept in days. Sarandon’s character can sleep, but the moment she awakes and remembers that her son is dead she bursts into tears. In searching for meaning in Bennett’s death, she’s taken to visiting the comatose man who hit his car, hoping that when he wakes up he’ll be able to tell her what her son’s last minutes were like. But in all this grieving and lack of sleep and fear and anger and resentment bubbling below the surface of this family’s New York suburb home, any real emotion or larger truth is ultimately lost.
Surprisingly, it is the youths of this drama that manage to bring the film back from a complete Oscar-bait disaster. The best and most memorable is the terrific Carey Mulligan as Rose, the girl who spent Bennett’s last day with him, and ended up getting pregnant. Unlike Brosnan and Sarandon, Mulligan knows not to constantly emote — each one of her lines is impeccably controlled. And unlike her elder, more accomplished costars, Mulligan gives Rose a quiet, watchful presence without allowing her to get lost in the shuffle. Mulligan doesn’t need to chew on the scenery. She knows it’s more than enough to simply stand within it. Johnson also does a lovely job in a small role, creating Bennett in flashback as a truly nice boy without making him sappy or overly romantic. And Johnny Simmons plays Bennett’s feckless brother with a degree of levity and joyousness that in this film is frankly miraculous.
It astonished me that three young, relatively inexperienced actors could run circles around two excellent veterans of Brosnan’s and Sarandon’s caliber. But when I stopped to think about it, the difference has less to do with age and experience and more to do with lightness and control. The elder actors chose the usual route for this type of film — heavy, scenery-chomping drama. But what this movie really needed was a good dose of reality.