DVD Review: The Greatest

by | Oct 7th, 2010 | 4:29PM | Filed under: DVD Reviews, Movies

DVD Review: A touchy, huggy, shouty weeper about love and loss, grief and new beginnings, The Greatest might have creaked under the weight of too many familiar emotional conflicts. Thankfully it’s enriched by a terrific cast and steady insight and honesty amid the melodrama.

The GreatestCramming in a teen love-story tragedy, an examination of grief and coping, plus an oncoming baby for heartwarming “out of loss comes new life” points, The Greatest doesn’t break much new dramatic ground. But with Susan Sarandon and Pierce Brosnan both doing their usual fantastic jobs, and talented newer-comers Carey Mulligan, Aaron Johnson and Johnny Simmons also on hand, the film is raised above its contrived soap-opera leanings and rendered genuinely moving and uplifting.

Just briefly describing the plot of the drama The Greatest threatens to overwhelm with sheer melodrama tonnage: Bennett Brewer (Kick-Ass and Nowhere Boy’s Aaron Johnson) and Rose (Carey Mulligan, Oscar nominee for An Education, now appearing in Wall Street 2 and Never Let Me Go) are graduating teenagers swept away in a sudden love. But almost before the credits end, Bennett is killed in a car accident.

The loss of their oldest son (the popular, high-achieving “Greatest” of the title) shatters the Brewers, and the film charts—perhaps a bit too neatly—the different paths of self-destruction each family member’s grief takes. His mother Grace (Sarandon) is fiercely adrift, lost in the Five States of Grief, including weeping, anger, and a desperate quest to find out what Bennett’s last minutes were like–as if there were a magic “answer” just out of reach. (The man whose truck struck Bennett’s car spoke to the boy on the scene, but then slipped into a coma himself.)

His father Allen (Brosnan) is a college math professor who stoically tries to analyze and process his and his wife’s grief, like solving an algebra problem—at least until his inability to sleep threatens both his physical and mental health. And Bennett’s younger brother (Simmons of Jennifer’s Body and Scott Pilgrim) pretends he’s fine, going through the motions at teen grief sessions, tempted by past drug problems, and pursing a new romance with a fellow teen griever.

A Strong Cast and Promising Writer-Director Debut

Into all this returns Rose, previously unknown to the Brewers but now three months pregnant with Bennett’s child and without a place to live. Allen welcomes and embraces something new and hopeful in the home—Grace resents and resists the intrusion on her grief, pleading, “I don’t want everyone thinking that we’re blessed.”

As you can see, that’s a handful—enough maybe for three solid dramas. But it’s to the credit of first-time writer-director Shana Feste that while her reach exceeds her grasp, she does an admirable job of mostly juggling it all. (Feste’s second feature will be this winter’s Country Strong with Gwyneth Paltrow.) For every predicable beat Feste serves up, she also offers some genuine honesty and fresh grace. Sadness is always easier to do in films than genuine joy, but so much harder to do right. Feste’s debut slips into contrivance at times, but shows admirable instincts and solid promise.

That cast doesn’t hurt at all. Brosnan continues to do fine, understated work in a post-Bond career that suggests he never really needed to be a matinee superspy in the first place. And as a woman on the verge of crossing over from genuine loss into professional, obsessive griefdom, Sarandon comes apart in multiple directions with impressive authenticity. Johnson, seen intermittently in flashbacks is also comes off endearingly genuine, and the always mesmerizing Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road, The Runaways) shows up briefly.

Which brings us to Mulligan, an actress who I fell over myself to praise and herald last spring in An Education. She’s still incredibly talented, but after Wall Street, Never Let Me Go, and The Greatest, I feel I’ve seen her go-to move a few too many times: the big, sad eyes looking up from under her bangs; the trembling, quivering lip; the hurting Old Soul about to break into tears. She’s tremendous at this, pulling off a melancholy maturity that eludes most of her acting peers. But as we head into 2011 it would be nice to see something new from Mulligan.

The Greatest’s main point is that grief is intensely personal, and everyone copes with it —or doesn’t—in their own way, not always successfully. If in the end perhaps things get hugged out a bit too easily (that’s two “baby cures all” movies for Mulligan this year), at least the film reminds us that memories of the dead must eventually become a celebration, not a burden, and that the only way out of crippling grief is to embrace the living around you.

The Greatest is available on DVD from redbox.

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