'A Long Way Down' finds heart and humor in people ready to end it all

McClatchy-Tribune News ServiceJuly 9, 2014 

Oh yes, as the song goes, "life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone."

That's the sentiment at the heart of "A Long Way Down," a suicide dramedy based on that pop music-loving British novelist Nick Hornby's book.

That isn't one of the tunes quoted or sung in this well-cast, mildly charming novelty. A bit too "on the nose," one supposes, though the author of "About a Boy" and "High Fidelity" has a character sing a bit of the Bee Gees' "Tragedy." So, maybe not, or maybe the screenwriter or producer in charge of spending money on music rights nixed it.

Here's the set-up. A disgraced British talk show host (Pierce Brosnan), a fellow who lost his wife, kids, job and reputation after an indiscretion with an underage girl, makes his way to the roof of a tall London building on New Year's Eve. Martin brought a ladder to use as a diving board. "Humiliated," he's taking the plunge. But as he's sucking down one last cigar, he's interrupted.

"Are you going to be long?"

Maureen (Toni Collette) wants to be next in line. And she and Martin are just getting their minds around the embarrassment of that when a wild-eyed young club hopper (Imogen Poots) lunges past them and makes a break for the ladder.

And they've barely tamed her hysteria when they spy the pizza delivery guy (Aaron Paul) calmly considering another portion of the ledge of this London hot spot for "suicidalists."

Jess (Poots) is an unfiltered insult machine.

"Very exciting to have a celebrity in our suicidal midsts," she cracks, recognizing Martin.

Sheepishly, they abandon their plans. All "Good luck with your next attempt, see you in the after-life." But when one of them doesn't quite give up reaching thatevening's terminal destination, they pull together and show compassion. That leads to "the pact."

What's the second biggest night for suicides, the world over? Valentine's Day. They promise not to off themselves before then. And since they're already sort of getting into each other's business, the "Topper House Four" become friends.

Get past the cute set-up and the whole sex-with-a-15-year-old business (the story's "edge"), and French director Pascal Chaumeil ("Heartbreaker") and screenwriter Jack Thorne get a perfectly serviceable sentimental comedy out of Hornby's book.

Each character has a secret or not-so-secret reason for wanting to end it all, each takes turns narrating the story as we grasp that secret.

But you don't enjoy Hornby adaptations for their story structure. It's the lovely dialogue that sticks with you.

"I don't mind the pain," J.J., the pizza guy, says, quoting his own failed-band's song lyrics. "It's the hope that gets to me."

Shallow TV vet Martin tries to get them "ownership" of their own story when the averted mass suicide becomes public knowledge and the piranhas of the British press attack. Martin's former co-host (Rosamund Pike) leads the crucifixion. But that treatment is just another reminder that he's not "famous" anymore.

Collette generates the most empathy, Poots ("Fright Night," "That Awkward Moment") has the most to play and most to say. But Hornby gave the very best lines to J.J., whose motives for desiring an early death are the most mysterious in this story of "a bunch of desperate people being desperate together as a way of feeling less desperate."

You don't really get that from "A Long Way Down" - that desperation. With the media circus stuff and the group vacation to the Canary Islands (a perk to attract this fine cast?), "Way Down" veers towards cute and settles on "twee" far more often than it should.

But there's value in a story that finds heart and humor from the grimmest human state of mind by describing, but not dwelling, on the wide range of reasons people plan or impulsively attempt to take their own lives.

A LONG WAY DOWN

2 1/2 stars (Grade: C-plus)

Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Imgoen Poots, Toni Collette, Aaron Paul, Sam Neill, Rosamund Pike

Directed by Pascal Chaumeil, scripted by Jack Thorne, based on the Nick Hornby novel. A Magnolia release.

Running time: 1:36

MPAA rating: R for language

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