'Irreplaceable You': Film Review

A waste of a talented cast.
2/16/2018

Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays a dying woman trying to find a new romantic partner for her fiance in this Netflix tearjerker also featuring Christopher Walken, Michiel Huisman, Steve Coogan and Kate McKinnon.

Not long into Irreplaceable You, Abbie, the central character played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, learns that she's dying. A young woman in the prime of her life, she's understandably devastated. One of the first things she does after hearing the news is to promptly cancel her gym membership. That's the only believable moment in Stephanie Laing's tearjerking comedy/drama receiving its premiere on Netflix.

The filmmaker has attracted a terrific cast to the pic marking the screenwriting debut of acclaimed playwright Bess Wohl (Small Mouth Sounds). Besides Mbatha-Raw, the ensemble includes Christopher Walken, Steve Coogan, Kate McKinnon and Jacki Weaver, most of them playing small roles far beneath their talents.

The film at first holds the promise of being rather daring, considering that it begins with Abbie (no spoiler alert) narrating the proceedings from the afterlife as her former lover Sam (Michiel Huisman) places flowers on her grave. She relates how she and Sam had known they were destined to be together since childhood and were planning to get married when Abbie, thinking that she was pregnant, found out that the growth in her stomach was actually a malignant tumor.

After attending to the important business of canceling that gym membership, Abbie undergoes chemo treatments at the hands of an amusingly blunt male nurse (Timothy Simons) and begins attending a support group in which the members handle their angst via both conversation and crocheting (one woman is working on a teddy bear that she intends to be buried with). It's there that she meets the sardonic Myron (Walken), with whom she strikes up a friendship. When Myron warns Abbie that Sam will almost certainly go through a "major slut phase" after she's gone, she becomes determined to find him a suitable future partner herself.

You can guess the results, as would-be comedy develops in the form of Abbie feverishly scrolling dating apps and personally interviewing potential mates for Sam, who eventually gets wind of her activities and, not surprisingly, refuses to go along. Although her efforts do apparently spark a seed, since he drunkenly propositions a woman at a bar until he's hurriedly taken out by his best friend (Brian Tyree Henry).

The screenplay is littered with some good lines, such as Myron's comment to Abbie, "I've been dying longer than you have, I'm better at it." But Wohl never manages to achieve the proper tonal blend. The result is neither sufficiently funny nor moving, lacking the truly daring humor that might have made the film a bracing dark comedy.

It's a shame, considering the estimable ensemble, starting with the luminous Mbatha-Raw who, almost, but not quite, rises above the schmaltzy material. Walken is drolly amusing as usual, but his character never comes across as anything other than a plot device. The brilliant comic gifts of Coogan, as the group leader, and McKinnon, as one of its members, are so utterly squandered it makes you wonder if their parts were severely cut. Huisman, wearing the sort of nerdy eyeglasses intended to help us overlook his matinee-idol handsomeness, sells his emotional moments well, and Weaver makes a vivid impression in her brief turn as Myron's wife. Director Laing, one of the producers of Veep, clearly knows how to assemble a sterling cast. Unfortunately, their talents are mostly wasted here.

Production companies: ACE, Tropper Ink, Rocliffe, PYPO, Opposite Fields Pictures, The Exchange
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michiel Huisman, Steve Coogan, Timothy Simons, Jacki Weaver, Kate McKinnon, Christopher Walken, Brian Tyree Henry, Merritt Weaver

Director: Stephanie Laing
Screenwriter: Bess Wohl

Producers: Jonathan Tropper, Farah Abushwesha, Brian Robbins, Matt Kaplan, Stephanie Laing
Executive producers: Christie Colliopoulos, Bess Wohl, Buzz Koenig, Matthew Meyers

Director of photography: Magdalena Gorka
Production designer: Dara Wishingrad

Editor: Dierdre Slevin
Composer: Leslie Barber
Costume designer: Whitney Anne Adams
Casting: Sharon Bialy, Sherry Thomas

96 minutes