Former Van Halen singer and spandex fashionista David Lee Roth once explained that the reason music critics loved Elvis Costello so much was that all music critics looked like Elvis Costello.
While that’s probably not 100% true, it’s also not 100% false either, and that’s clearly the case with the multitude of positive reviews coming out of Sundance for Me and Earl and The Dying Girl. It’s easy to see why the film walked away with both the festival’s audience award and the Grand Jury prize for U.S. Drama. The film feels like it was created in a lab for optimal Sundance performance, it’s a veritable Indominus Rex designed to make film geeks feel good about themselves. In comic book terms, it’s a MODOP: a Mechanical Organism Designed Only for Projecting.
Our story follows Greg (Thomas Mann), a standoffish teen cineaste who spends most of his high school years trying to hide out from the rest of the school and making terrible parody films with his friend Earl (RJ Cyler). When Greg’s well-meaning mother (Connie Britton, America’s Favorite Hot Mom™) learns that Greg’s classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke, America’s Favorite Sick Girl™) has been diagnosed with leukemia, she forces him to spend time with Rachel out of some misplaced sympathy. Locked together, Rachel and Greg form a friendship that doesn’t bloom into romance, but still falls into romance tropes all the same. There’s some other weird plots that never pan out, but mostly it’s just Greg and Rachel being friends out of Stockholm Syndrome. Side note: Despite the film’s title, we only see the three characters together for one scene.
Greg is a terrible protagonist, let’s get that out of the way first. Middle-aged film critics love him, because he’s basically designed to allow them to see themselves in a teenage body: awkward, mildly handsome, carrying misplaced self-loathing and wondering why no one appreciates their Werner Herzog impressions. His complaints of low self-esteem never really connect because all he thinks about is himself, and as a result, all the movie focuses on is Greg. So what of Rachel and Earl? Because they are Not-Gregs, they have zero characterization beyond what they can teach Greg or do for him. This makes the treatment of Rachel horribly painful, as she has to deal with all of the Manic Pixie trappings of making the protagonist heal themselves as we watch her get progressively sicker. At one particularly egregious point, she literally writes his college admission essay for him while covering her shaved head. This is treated as very normal and selfless and not at all an excuse to keep your protagonist from making developments on their own. Rachel screams that she doesn’t want to let her illness be what defines her, but her only character traits are “has cancer” and “is Greg’s friend.” If you don’t believe me, consider the fact that she is called “The Dying Girl” in the movie’s title.
Throughout the film, we are thrown multiple references and homages to classics of cinema, including foreign filmmakers and Criterion masterworks. (Is it really considered a “reference” anymore when the film just flat-out shows you a scene from Aguirre?) Earl and Greg’s filmmaking talents extend basically to making pun-based parodies of works in the “great films” canon, including A Sockwork Orange, 2:48 PM Cowboy, Senior Citizen Kane, and my personal favorite, The 400 Bros.This fellation of the classics starts off intriguing and turns into pandering, as the film at one point literally shoves the names “Jodorowsky” and “Warhol” in your face. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and novelist-turned-screenwriter Jesse Andrews essentially spend half the movie doing that thing where you hold a book in an exaggerated fashion hoping that someone will ask what you’re reading. “Look at how cultured we are! Look how cultured YOU are for getting the joke!” they scream with all the tact of a second-year film student, and Sundance audiences fell for it hook, line, and sinker.
All these homages to the classics eventually extend to a bizarre failing of the film itself that I’m not sure I can even call a failure: It is incredibly well-made. The cinematography is top-notch, so much it’s almost offputting. The shots are almost too perfectly constructed, to the point where it feels like a formula has been distilled from all these classics Gomez-Rejon wants you to know he’s seen. It becomes “use Shot X to elicit Emotion Y” robot-style filmmaking, which can be expected from a former second-unit director whose solo output consists almost entirely of Ryan Murphy TV show episodes. The rest of the film, with its weak script and mediocre performances, fails to deliver the emotion that the framing so desperately wants. The result is a truly bizarre disconnect between film content and film framework which leaves the filmgoer at arm’s length from the story, which is a bad place for a drama to be.
Fellow film geeks, let’s be honest: our entire hobby and job is talking about and tearing down artwork someone else made.
We’re the LAST people on Earth that anyone should really sympathize with, especially not when placed next to literal cancer patients. The film is made doubly insufferable when you realize that male film snobs who complain about the Mary Sue-ism of works aimed at young women like Twilight will be the first to project themselves onto Greg and they will see absolutely nothing wrong with that. (The set of Greg’s house is even the house the author grew up in.) Last week, I wrote a scathing treatise on how blockbuster cinema is choking on the weight of studio interference and franchise demands, resulting in cynical, repetitive, cinema designed by committee and lacking in creative artifice. It’s appropriate then, that this week I review a film which proves that independent film is not necessarily a cure-all antidote for this disease. Make no mistake, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is just as processed and assembly-line as Jurassic World or Age of Ultron: It was just manufactured in a different plant.Liked This? Share It!