Thursday, June 11, 2015

Review: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

by Patrick Bromley
This is the movie that that won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance this year. It is expected to become this year's breakout indie hit. A lot of people are going to love it. I am not one of those people.

There may be a decent movie buried somewhere deep inside Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the second film from former TV director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon after last year's remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Unfortunately, whatever good there is has been obscured by heaps and heaps of self-conscious, unnecessary style. It's an approach that was acceptable in Sundown, as that was a movie that allowed for flashy directorial pyrotechnics -- the "meta" nature of the remake afforded more flamboyant and experimental choices. In a movie like Me and Earl, which is supposed to be about actual humans who actually get to know, care about and learn from one another, it's a disaster.
Thomas Mann stars as Greg, a mopey high schooler (but, you know, gifted and special) who makes movies with his best/only friend Earl (RJ Cyler) and doesn't know what he's going to do with himself after graduation. Suddenly his life has purpose: Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a girl in his class, has been diagnosed with leukemia. Urged by his parents (Connie Britton, always welcome, and Nick Offerman, phoning it in) to befriend Rachel, Greg hangs around her like a sad puppy, constantly feeling sorry for himself but finally achieving the self-actualization to a) apply to college b) get asked to prom by the hottest girl in school and c) make a movie that isn't just a single dumb joke but which actually means something. Look at all he accomplishes! Good thing that girl got cancer.

I'm sure everyone involved with Me and Earl and the Dying Girl means well, from the cast to director Gomez-Rejon to screenwriter Jesse Andrews, who here adapts his own novel. Yet I can't shake the feeling that I found almost every single thing about the movie irritating, save the performances of Olivia Cooke, RJ Cyler, Molly Shannon (as Rachel's mother) and one genuinely moving scene near the end (at least they're able to make that one count). It's not just that the movie is mannered, which it is, or that it is smug, which it is, or that is manipulative in ways that are dishonest, which it is (and before you object, yes all movies are manipulative, particularly those we classify as "tearjerkers," but there are specific ways that this movie manipulates that I can't talk about without spoiling things). The irritation comes from the combination of all three coupled with Gomez-Rejon's wrongheaded approach to the material. He overdirects almost every scene as though he's afraid to let a single moment speak for itself or like the audience will grow restless if he doesn't spin the camera around or flip it upside down seven times, particularly during the first third of the movie (he slows down after that). Even the long single takes -- at least one of which is framed nicely and, for the most part, works -- begin to call attention to themselves as such. Gomez-Rejon can never stop being the star of his movie.
I think -- I think -- that part of logic behind Gomez-Rejon's insufferable camerawork in the film's first third is that, as it is stripped away, the movie gets more "real." He thinks he's breaking down walls, moving away from movie world and closer to real life. I get what he's going for, though I don't think he's at all successful in this. There is very little in this movie that comes close to resembling real life. Again, I understand we're meant to believe that this is because Greg keeps life at an ironic distance, preferring to see the world through the lens of the films with which he's obsessed. I would argue this movie doesn't get this right either. Greg's passion for movies (and, by extension, the filmmakers') consists of namedropping Herzog and making deliberately terrible short film parodies of classic movies, usually based on turning the title into a pun. They are not funny nor or they particularly well made. This is how he relates to the thing he loves most? This is how he express his passion for cinema? At least when Max Fischer put on terrible plays in Rushmore, we knew that he believed in them. He meant it. Greg's efforts, like everything else about Me and Earl, are insincere.
Fox Searchlight gets one of these twee "breakout indies" every other year or so to the point that it seems like they're just grown in a lab: Little Miss Sunshine, (500) Days of Summer, The Way Way Back and now Earl, which is closer to The Way Way Back than any of the other titles on that list. Take that however you like depending on your feelings about The Way Way Back. With its cancer plot, Me and Earl goes for too-easy emotion. With its irony-drenched approach to the coming of age film, it tries to have it both ways, attempting to take the piss out of the very thing it bends over backwards to ultimately imitate. The film's protagonist is one of the more problematic I've seen in a teen movie in a long time, and because the movie is told from his point of view it takes on all of his selfishness and lack of real substance. Gomez-Rejon tries to cover for it with photography that would make Brian De Palma say "cool it," further pushing the audience out of the film when it ought to be drawing them in closer. I guess the lesson in the end is that everyone has their own story to tell, but some people are too far up their own asses to get it. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl knows something about that.


  1. "Gomez-Rejon tries to cover for it with photography that would make Brian De Palma say "cool it,"

    Whoa! Haha. I really liked "The Way Way Back" and thought it was a great coming of age story. From reading your review I'm not sure where the comparison is to "Earl" as TWWB didn't come across as flashy to me at all. The town felt real and so did the people, even with Sam Rockwell's larger than life character, which I loved though. What is the common thread for these two?

    Earl sounds ridiculous. The flamboyant camera work worked for me in "The Town that Dreaded Sundown" but I can imagine it wears out it's welcome in a different setting and genre.

  2. I kind of wonder if audiences/critics are more impressed by style and tricks or by characters and story (I point to BIRDMAN last year as a movie with lots of style and a truly impressive trick, but with no characters who felt like people I've met, although to be fair I've never met a famous actor). Or perhaps, and I wonder if I'm on to something, people are mistaking the style for character, filling in the blanks of the writing with tricks of the direction. This is, perhaps, something you alluded to Patrick, that the holes and the flaws of the main character are supposed to be exposed/talked about by the camera and the direction. Silly old me, I thought character development was the job of the screenwriter.

    I don't know, maybe I'm off base here, but I feel like a lot of these smaller movies aren't content to just tell a story well. Look at a guy like Spielberg, probably the best living director we have right now. This is a guy with almost no added flair, no fancy camera tricks, he just tells the story in the most effective way he can. Of course, not every filmmaker has what Spielberg does, and can't always live up to that type of storytelling, but I thought that you were supposed to try to be as good as the best? I mean almost all of the greatest directors in film history have been guys who know how to use the camera to tell the story best, and usually with as little extra flair as possible (DePalma probably being the outlier). Of course there is still style, and yes occasionally they did fancy stuff with the camera, but when they did it was for a very deliberate storytelling purpose, not just because they thought it would look cool. The world is a big place, and there is room enough for movies that are style over substance, I'm just arguing for a more nuanced approach of these movies, and for people to recognize when they are being fed a turd sandwich wrapped in gold tin foil.

    1. When I was young, I was fairly impressed by flashy camerawork. These days, I just want the director to calm the fuck down and tell a decent story.

  3. The Way Way Back is wonderful and based in very real pain. I say that coming from a place where I relate deeply to the main character -- his relationship (from the very first scene) with Steve Carell's character closely mirrors my own with my stepfather for the first few years after he entered my life.

    Did I have a Sam Rockwell show up and magically instill me with confidence? No -- it was real life and that was a movie. But it was rooted in truth, and I can attest to that. Plus I thought it was funny and full of love and it moves me.

    None of this is meant to be defensive, just to express where I'm coming from regarding that flick. M&E&TDG doesn't look anywhere near as good, but I will probably watch it anyway because that's just how I am.

  4. I'm still looking forward to seeing the movie, but you make very interesting points. I adore The Way Way Back, and actually think it's a very well made film. But what you're describing this movie to be sounds kind of terrible. But I'm still very interested. As a wise man says, "It's always better to have seen a movie than to have not seen a movie."

  5. Bummer. It's finally making it's way to Baltimore in 2 weeks and I was looking forward to it. I'll still go into it with an open mind and see what I think.

  6. Hmm. Haven't seen Me&Earl but I also find all the things you described super annoying in movies. And "good thing that girl got cancer." Sacrificing a girl for a guy's emotional welfare in a movie- original. That's just not fair or good story telling, it's not honest about the guy character. It's like cheating or like a fairytale. And as a girl I admit it makes me seethe. I wish we'd never see this happen again in movies. I stay away from anything Harold & Maude-ish like the plague.

  7. I saw this at a festival, and I'm pleased to see you felt much the same as I did, Patrick. I mostly liked the performances (even the main character's), but was frustrated by how the style completely distracted from the relationships.

    You didn't even mention the totally unnecessary voiceover (though you hinted at its manipulation) or the claymation sequences, both of which seem to exist solely so the movie can shove its quirky cleverness in your face.

    One last complaint (which you addressed briefly): the film seems to be written by its main protagonist, in that every other character pretty much only exists to serve him and his character journey. A girl has to be dying to help him get past his own issues.