There’s not a damn thing wrong with a good cry. Catharsis is a healthy thing, even a vital one, a concept that goes all the way back to the Greeks. It’s important to find a way to let the body and soul purge itself of emotion, to find a release of some sort. It’s a huge part of why we seek out stories in the first place. The term “tearjerker” is often used to disparage, but there are great movies (and some less great, but mostly harmless) that can bring just about anyone to tears. Watching An Affair to Remember or Brian’s Song? Forget to bring tissues, and you do so at your peril.
Me Before You is not one of those movies. Oh, bring tissues, to be sure. But don’t expect anything like genuine catharsis. To call it formulaic would be an insult to the actually formulaic entries in this genre: your Fault in Our Stars-es, your Notebooks, your Steel Magnolias and your Shawshank Redemptions. Those movies, for better or worse, are designed to bring you to tears. They earn those tears. Me Before You is more akin to a stick-up.
Louisa, or Lou (Emilia Clarke), has a cozy job she loves, and she has it for all of 30 seconds before she gets fired. Her job hunt, made more difficult by what we’re told is an adorable lack of skills, ends when she’s hired as a caregiver to Will Traynor (Sam Claflin), a recently paralyzed man who’s also handsome, rich, and kind of an asshole. Despite his unkindness, Lou keeps the job — her family needs the money — and much to the chagrin of her boyfriend (Matthew Lewis), she quirkily breaks through Will’s prickly exterior. From there, it’s not hard to guess what happens.
Adapted for the screen from her novel of the same name, Jojo Moyes’ screenplay (co-written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber) hits most of the beats you expect from the romantic melodrama. The characters are engaging enough, made more so by Clarke’s considerable charms and Claflin’s as well. They spar, banter, flirt, make eyes, and get nervous. They cry, of course. There’s lots of crying. We’re told that they change each other. Where Moyes’ story, directed with almost no restraint whatever by newcomer Thea Sharrock, attempts to set itself apart is in its approach to death. Without giving too much away, the film essentially pits Will and Lou against each other — one preparing to die, the other strong-arming him back into the land of the living.
Perhaps on the page, this is a subtle look at a difficult subject. It’s certainly one worthy of discussion. But nowhere in the story is Lou’s determination to will Will back to life looked at as being in any way selfish or self-involved, nor is Will’s point of view given much time or depth. We’re expected to believe that they both, in their own way, have got it figured out, but that’s in no way earned.
While Clarke mostly makes Lou’s quirks and eccentricities palatable through the sheer force of her personality — yeah, she’s a manic pixie dream girl, but you believe it — she falters in the film’s final act, making the story’s insufficiencies that much clearer. The supporting cast, which includes Charles Dance, Brendan Coyle, Janet McTeer, and Jenna Coleman (all grievously underused) mostly rise to the occasion, while Claflin and Dance in particular display admirable restraint and honestly. But it still fails to ring true.
There’s one last thing that must be said on the film, though others will undoubtedly say it from a more informed vantage. Setting aside Claflin’s talents as an actor, there’s something that feels deeply cynical, and perhaps borderline offensive, about a story being told in which the romantic hero exists mostly as a figure of pity. We’re told that he needs to be convinced that life is worth living, simply because he’s differently-abled. It’s another iteration of the magical Other from whom an attractive white person learns a lesson, and one made more jarring by Will’s reliance on dark humor and uncomfortable truths. Does it ring true as a character trait? Sure. But there’s no way of forgetting that the paraplegic man making these jokes and crying these tears is played by an able-bodied performer, and something about that feels not only dishonest, but dismissive and reductive as well. Will Traynor’s story is one others share, and while he’s played by an actor of skill, there’s no denying that his existence is only a few steps ahead of manipulative as well.
So yes, the tears might readily flow, but they feel hollow. It’s all too calculated to really have an impact, to grant audiences an honest chance for catharsis. Give us your attention, the filmmakers seem to say, and in return we’ll give you all the pop songs you need in order to know how to feel at any given moment. That’s what you want, right?