When I saw the promo photos for Our Friend, with Jason Segel and Casey Affleck, I just assumed it was a comedy in the vein of Our Idiot Brother and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Instead of a rom-com, what you get is a serious cancer drama. Yet it also has some laughs, and what should be an Oscar-nominated performance by Segel. The way he brings the charm, pathos, and plays the perfect best friend and avuncular character…it’s easily the best acting performance of his career. It’s also the first time I’ve seen Dakota Johnson in a role that I liked. She plays Nicole, a musical theatre actress working locally. Dane (Segel) is her lighting director who has a crush on her, but is put in the friend-zone. Mostly because she’s already married to Matthew (Casey Affleck, who’s basically playing his same character from Manchester by the Sea). I loved how subtle, and slightly humorous, the first meeting of these two guys is. It seemed exactly as awkward it would be, when your wife has a male friend that you know likes her; yet they’re both big enough to get past that and even joke about future suitors.
The film, by director Gabriela Cowperthwaite (who gave us the fake documentary Blackfish), goes with a nonlinear structure, which hurt in many ways (both my wife and I were confused by a few of the jumps). Also by doing this, which was done much better in (500) Days of Summer, it’s harder to feel the emotions you might for some of the characters, as well as develop the stronger chemistry between them.
It’s hard to figure out the Dane character. He is this man-child type that Segel has played on screen before, but it’s hard to understand his motivations or what he’s running from. I guess we just have to chalk it all up to his suffering with depression. At one point, this leads to a scene of him hiking, and a cameo with Gwendoline Christie (Game of Thrones), that just knocks my socks off. It’s a perfectly conceived scene in every sense of the word. My wife and I even spent some time talking about how much we loved that scene after the movie ended. It’s the type of scene that should be shown in film school classes.
Another example of a perfectly done scene, is an obnoxious character who pops up. He’s the boyfriend of a good friend of the Tegue family. He says a few things that Matt doesn’t like, but he tolerates it. Yet when his wife is near the end stages of her cancer but trying to put on a brave face for friends coming to visit…what Matt says to him in the garage after another obnoxious comment, is just perfect. In a typical Hollywood movie, he would have punched, or told him to fu** off. Instead, he just calmly tells him how they don’t like him and only tolerate him because he’s dating their good friend. Nicely done. And it’s nice that, although this obnoxious guy is talking about how Dane should be paying them rent for crashing on their couch, we (and the Tegues), never feel like he’s a third wheel, but a godsend, to be helping them out during all their troubling times; whether that’s the cancer treatments or garden variety marital problems.
It was also refreshing that, while you’re watching this, you really start to resent Matt. He’d rather work and go to worn-torn countries to cover the story as a writer, than spend time with his wife and kids. It makes his oldest daughter resent him, as well as his wife to some degree. And when Dane tries to nicely tell him that he should turn down his latest assignment that will take him away for months, boy does he get an earful. You felt horrible for Dane, and hated Matt more. But hey…this is how real people act in the real world (and this is all based on a real story that appeared in Esquire magazine).
Of course, we also see some of the nicer moments of their marriage, too (just as 500 Days of Summer showed both sides in their time jumps). And since I brought up that movie twice, I can also bring up a few other movies. The powerful opening scene, where two parents discuss how to tell their daughters about the cancer — is very reminiscent of the powerful scene in Terms of Endearment where Debra Winger has to tell her two sons she won’t be around much longer. And, it’s really a shame that the much better Manchester by the Sea came out just a few years ago, because you’ll be thinking of that as you watch Affleck mope around.
I’ve always felt the song “Can’t Find My Way Home” (Blind Faith) was one of the best songs in music history, yet when it’s played here at Matt drives around, it doesn’t quite work. I instead thought of how perfectly it ended Kevin Costner’s first big film — Fandango. I did like the use of Led Zeppelin. It’s her favorite band, and Dane hates them. Yet when he puts headphones on her as she’s sick in bed, and says, “I finally found a song of theirs I like” — we hear “Going to California.” It’s a beautiful moment. And on the subject of music, there was a terrific, sensitive score by Linda Cohen.
My wife and I both liked this movie, and she spent the next half hour in the bathroom crying after it finished (wait…is that a spoiler alert?).
You can catch it this weekend on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, DirecTV, Google Play, Spectrum, Xfinity, and other digital platforms and pay TV operators. If you’re outside San Diego, I’m sure there are a few movie theatres you can see it in.
3 ½ stars out of 5.