A Long Way Down: Berlin Review

Warning: watching this high-concept comedy about four potential suicides could rob viewers of the will to live.

Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collette, Aaron Paul and Imogen Poots star in this comedy about suicide, adapted from a novel by bestselling British author Nick Hornby

Four strangers planning on killing themselves, played by Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collette, Aaron Paul and Imogen Poots, meet at a famous London suicide spot on New Year’s Eve and form an ad hoc support group in A Long Way Down, a horrible misfire of a movie which starts off badly and just keeps getting worse. Directed by Pascal Chaumeil (Heartbreaker, Le plan parfait), and adapted from a popular novel by Nick Hornby (Fever Pitch, About a Boy), the film forms a near-perfect storm of misjudged decisions, with its implausible plot, irritating or outright-dislikeable characters, and strained attempts at “wacky” British humor that fall so flat they’re below sea level. In the U.K., an aggressive enough marketing campaign that plays up Hornby’s name, and to a lesser extent Brosnan and Paul’s, might help this do okay business. Internationally, A Long Way Down’s best bet is to go up in the air, on the back of airplane seats.

The film puts its foot in it in the first few minutes with the introduction of former TV presenter Martin Sharp (former 007 Brosnan) who’s planning to kill himself, his life and career are in tatters following a spell in prison for sleeping with a 15-year-old girl. That backstory originated in Hornby’s 2005 novel, but it seems far less laugh-off-able now for British audiences in the wake of the recent scandals over local TV personalities, such as the late Jimmy Saville, who have been exposed as pedophiles. Martin’s voiceover contains a hasty admission that what he did was wrong, but it remains a problematic blot on the character that the affable Brosnan and the film can never bleach out.

Anyway, it’s New Year’s Eve, and Martin ascends to the roof of a central London tower block, a notorious jumping-off spot for suicides. While dithering on the ledge, he’s interrupted by Maureen (Collette, from Little Miss Sunshine), a mousy woman who also wants to jump and is wondering how long she’ll have to wait for her turn. As the two discuss suicide etiquette, they’re joined by a third would-be jumper, impetuous 18-year-old Jess (Poots, The Look of Love), and then a fourth, American dude JJ (Paul, Breaking Bad), whose supposed coolness is lazily telegraphed by the fact he wears a leather jacket.

For muddily defined reasons, none of the characters jump. Instead, the four of them band together to help Jess find the guy who dumped her, Chas (Joe Cole, whose spot-on turn as pill-addled raver is damn near the best thing in the film) at a party. There, Jess accidentally takes a drug overdose, which further cements the quartet’s bond when they rush her to the hospital to save her. Together, they make a pact not to commit suicide until Valentine’s Day in six weeks’ time.

As the deadline comes nearer, the shaky initial premises of Jack Thorne’s script metastasize into full-blown absurdities. The foursome become a media sensation when it’s exposed that Jess is the daughter of a prominent member of Parliament (Sam Neill). A quickfire, supposedly humorous montage (there must be a sub-program on Avid that generates these things) shows them each telling a journalist conflicting stories about how they saw an angelic presence on the rooftop, a strategy that fails that rehabilitate their image. Then they make matters worse when they appear together on the show Martin used to co-present with Penny (An Education’s Rosamund Pike, wasted here) during which she spitefully dredges up Martin’s prison term and Jess’ mysteriously missing sister.

Viewers might think that by this point the four characters - who in the real world would never mingle outside the confines of psychiatric ward – would just give up and scatter to the four corners of the globe in shame. But no, they all go on holiday together to Tenerife, Spain, for more bonding, backstory revelations, and another the opportunity for the script to make the now-exhausted point about the venality of the press by having JJ unwittingly sleep with an undercover journalist (Tuppence Middleton).

Admittedly, the cast have pigs’ ears to work with here, but even so, most of them are not giving it their best. Out of all the lazy performances Brosnan has given over the years, this may count as one of his worst. Poots, a promising actor, does no favors to her rising status with her mugging here as an exquisitely annoying Manic-Depressive Pixie Dream Girl, and Paul seems to be just rehashing a variant of his Breaking Bad character but without the meth problem or frequent, endearing exclamations of “bitch.” It has to be admitted that Toni Collette nearly saves the film with in the endgame with her portrait of a beleaguered mother of a child with severe disabilities. On paper, the subplot should be the final straw of sentimental overkill, but Collette plays it with such warmth and awkward grace it just about works.

Unfortunately, it’s a Hail Mary move that the rest of the cast and crew fail to catch, as the movie limps on to its ridiculous conclusion. Chief culprits for the finally reckoning remain Chaumeil, whose direction has all the comic energy of a quadriplegic clown, and Thorne for his misbegotten script. Hornby’s fans might come to his defense by pointing out that the screenplay makes major diversions from the original novel, but he must still bear some blame for the major flaws right there in the narrative’s DNA, and besides, you would think he had some control over the final result given his wife, Amanda Posey, is one of the film’s producers.

Last but not least, Dario Marianelli’s simpering score buzzes incessantly throughout like an invincible mosquito, refusing to leave any moment without an emotional cue, while Londoners will be awestruck that the filmmakers have managed to find location shots that have, nearly every single time, either the London Eye or the Houses of Parliament or the Gherkin skyscraper in the background, lest anyone might forget this is meant to be taking place in the capital.

At one point the novel was optioned by Johnny Depp, and one can only wonder what sort of a hash it might have been with a bigger budget to make more lavish mistakes.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special)

Opens: March 21, 2014 (Lionsgate, in the U.K.)

Production: Wildgaze Films, BBC Films

Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collette, Imogen Poots, Aaron Paul, Sam Neill, Rosamund Pike, Tuppence Middleton 

Director: Pascal Chaumeil

Screenwriter: Jack Thorne, based on a novel by Nick Hornby

Producers: Finola Dwyer, Amanda Posey

Executive producers: Christoph Daniel, Zygi Kamasa, Marc Schmidheiny, Dario Suter

Director of photography: Ben Davis

Production designer: Chris Oddy

Costume designer: Odile Dicks-Mireaux

Editors: Chris Gill, Barney Pilling

Music: Dario Marianelli

Sales: Hanway Films

No rating, 95 minutes