'The Friend': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
A human story filled with false cheer.

Dakota Johnson, Casey Affleck and Jason Segel star in Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s drama about a young mother dying of cancer, her husband and their best friend.

The anguish of witnessing the terminal illness of a close friend or family member as it progresses from a medical threat to its most degenerative state is one of the hardest stories to pull off in a film without alienating the audience or plunging into maudlin sentimentality. It proves to be a bridge too far in The Friend, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, even with a cast as appealing as Jason Segel, Dakota Johnson and Casey Affleck. Overlaying the drama with the false cheer of lively music and bouts of humor, the story feels out of touch with the very emotions it desperately tries to evoke. Neither tearjerker nor very affecting drama, it defaults to somewhere in the middle.

Cowperthwaite, whose previous feature, Megan Leavey, was based on the true story of a Marine corporal in Iraq with her military combat dog, obviously has a passion for real-life tales. The Friend also closely follows a true story, written by journalist Matthew Teague and published in Esquire as “The Friend: Love Is Not a Big Enough Word.” In 2015, Teague’s 36-year-old wife Nicole died of cancer. Matt’s best friend Dane moved into their home in small-town Fairhope, Alabama, and helped him cope with her illness and offer around-the-clock moral support to Matt and his two young daughters.

His selfless friendship is the supposed subject of the film, though there is a lot of difficulty keeping it in focus. The story shifts back and forth in time, the years always measured before and after Nicole’s diagnosis. In chronological order, Nicole (Johnson) is a provincial stage singer and actress, married to local journalist Matt (Affleck). Matt’s ambitions far outstrip the potential of his job on the Fairhope paper, however, and when he gets an encouraging call from The New York Times, he gears up for life as a war correspondent.

Nicole introduces him to Dane (Segel), an oafish fellow who works as a stage hand at the theater and who once asked her on a date, unaware that she was already married. Though initially jealous, Matt soon realizes that this unambitious ne’er-do-well who can’t even find a girlfriend is no rival. Soon big-hearted Dane is the best friend of both Nicole and Matt.

Disaster strikes when Nicole finds out she has cancer and begins treatment. She goes home, but the cancer returns and the doctor informs Matt she has only six months left to live. The beautiful young actress turns into a wan woman in a bandana and mismatched clothes. Entire scenes go by without any sign of Dane, while she and Matt agree they won’t tell their young daughters that their mother is going to die until there is no way they can hide it. A large group of Nicole’s friends pledge their support, bringing over lots of food. But as time passes, their ranks thin out.

Their only truly loyal friend is Dane. When he learns that Nicole is in the hospital and sees for himself the disastrous state of the house, he offers to move into the guest room for a few weeks and lend a helping hand. This stretches into months and means leaving his full-time job in New Orleans as a store clerk and splitting up with his girlfriend Cat, who won’t accept a long-distance romance.

Segel gently alternates his gift for comic chatter, which he uses to amuse the girls, with bouts of depression and a darker, hidden side. Suddenly he will jump in his car and take off for a month at a time, hiking through the Grand Canyon or wherever his fancy takes him, until something happens and he snaps back to normal. Clearly, the prospect of having a family, even though it’s not his own, is one of the big attractions to living at Matt’s house. But the sacrifices he makes, and the humility with which he makes them, is still touching and deep.

Less convincing are Affleck and Johnson in the Matt-Nicole relationship, which is fraught with suspicion and betrayal under the appearance of true love. Matt is described by his best friend as moody, selfish and distant; Nicole is subject to violent mood swings as her illness progresses. She’s resentful of the time he spends away from home to report from Lahore and Libya; he becomes furious when he learns she has a crush on her theater director. But nowhere does either of them become as vivid as Segel’s Dane.

Though several times ever-more-distant shots are used to suggest getting a wider perspective on the situation, most of the visuals point to the intimacy of a family in crisis, with their closed interiors and long hospital corridors. The overused music is a noisy accompaniment trying to counteract the somberness of the story.

Production companies: Black Bear Pictures, STX Films
Cast: Jason Segel, Dakota Johnson, Casey Affleck

Director: Gabriella Cowperthwaite
Screenwriter: Brad Ingelsby
Producers: Kevin Walsh, Michael Pruss, Ryan Stowell, Teddy Schwarzman
Executive producers: Ridley Scott, Ben Stillman, Michael Heimter, Ted Deiker, Brad Ingelsby, Matthew Teague
Director of photography: Joe Anderson
Production designer: Cara Brower
Costume designer: Alana Morshead
Editor: Colin Patton
Music: Rob Simonsen
Casting director: Mark Bennett
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentation)
World sales: Endeavor Content (U.S.), STX international

124 minutes