'Good Grief' — Dan Levy's journey down a dark tunnel

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday January 23, 2024
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Himesh Patel, Dan Levy and Ruth Negga in 'Good Grief' (photo: Jonathan Daniel Pryce/Netflix)
Himesh Patel, Dan Levy and Ruth Negga in 'Good Grief' (photo: Jonathan Daniel Pryce/Netflix)

Within the last year, there have been quite a few queer films dealing with grief and loss: "The Whale," "Spoiler Alert," and most recently "American Fiction," and "All of Us Strangers." Perhaps grief is a backhand way for the LGBTQ community to examine the societal backlash occurring after two decades of legal and cultural progress.

So, it's not too surprising that gay writer/director Dan Levy's follow-up to his smash streaming TV series "Schitt's Creek," which also became a cultural meme, is a romantic comedy/drama about a man processing the sudden death of his husband in the new Netflix film, "Good Grief."

The irony isn't lost here that Levy had to struggle over what his next project would be after the massive success of "Schitt's Creek," a kind of mourning in its own way as he moved onto the next chapter in his creative life. The final effort, however, while earnest and entertaining, remains tepid, lacking a spark or momentum, and surprisingly emotionally stagnant, considering what should have been heartfelt subject matter.

Dan Levy and Luke Evans in 'Good Grief' (photo: Jonathan Daniel Pryce/Netflix)  

Bonjour, Paris
The film opens at a Christmas party in a luxury London Notting Hill apartment with artist Marc (Dan Levy) in his late thirties, celebrating the holiday with children's book writer, Oliver (Luke Evans), his husband, in what appears to be a flawless life. Oliver must leave for a book signing at the Louvre in Paris, but dies in a car accident a few minutes later.

The next scene occurs a year later where Marc's best friends Sophie (Ruth Negga) and Thomas (Himesh Patel), his ex-lover of years ago, are trying to help him through his grief. Thomas has moved in with Marc, while Sophie signed him onto a dating app.

Doing therapy, Marc agrees to open a note from Oliver he gave to him the night he died. The message reveals Oliver confessing he had met someone else and they needed to talk. Marc also learns from Oliver's lawyer (the marvelous Celia Imrie) that he had been secretly leasing a pied-a-terre in Paris, where he was headed to meet his lover, a young dancer. Marc doesn't tell Sophie and Thomas what he's unearthed.

Instead, he invites them on a Paris vacation and they will stay in Oliver's apartment. Sophie, a costume designer, has just ended a relationship with Terrance, while Thomas, working at an art gallery, still has feelings for Marc. Marc will spend time with Theo (Arnaud Valois), a French guy he had met at a performance art exhibit (starring nonbinary Emma Corrin in a cameo).

Marc shares that he gave up painting following the death of his mother and is encouraged to return to his art as a way of working through his pain. He had been illustrating Oliver's books, Harry Potter-like young adult fantasies, huge bestsellers leading to massive blockbuster films, all of which has left Mark rich.

What happens when Marc tells Sophie and Thomas the truth, how it unsettles their friendship with more secrets and brokenness revealed, and the way he copes with grief and betrayal, leads to the film's conclusion. Will Marc learn to love himself and accept his new life?

Again, this is a film with wealthy creative artists with at times sparkling dialogue that mostly doesn't exist in the real world, but is delightful anyway (i.e. "How is it your husband dying has only made you more of a spoiled brat?" "To avoid sadness is also to avoid love," "Grief is like swimming with my clothes on and I can't take them off.").

One wonders whether average, middle/working class people ever experience mourning. The long talk is cerebral, even though it's celebrating the power of chosen families of friends. The problem is that it's overly abstract, so the final quarter of the film drags. What at times should be heartbreaking comes across as hollow. There's a great deal to say, but almost nothing to feel. You won't need to bring your Kleenex.

As the scriptwriter, Levy has written himself an excellent role, where he can exercise his comic expertise, but he also has some fine dramatic moments about pain and regrets as well as showcasing his more sensitive side. The death of his grandmother at the end of the COVID lockdown inspired him to create this film. Marc is self-absorbed, which can be off-putting, but there are enough scenes where we can empathize with his attempts to cope with all these ambivalent feelings so you start feeling protective towards him.

The major flaw is the lack of development of Sophie and Thomas, who seemingly exist solely to reflect what's happening to Marc. They are both supposed to be messes, but we never understand what their problems are, their motivations, and why they're romantic duds. Negga and Patel are fine appealing actors, but there's so little in the screenplay with which to work, so they're unidimensional.

Negga overcompensates for her lonely life-of-the-party Sophie. She seems to envision her character as Sally Bowles, but there's no continental charm or joie de vivre here. Negga is over-exuberant so there are times one finds her exhausting. Patel's character is reduced to whining and finger-pointing when he's not going into overdrive with his aching sincerity.

Dan Levy and Arnaud Valois in 'Good Grief' (photo: Jonathan Daniel Pryce/Netflix)  

Good intentions
However, there are two wonderful brief acting tour de forces: David Bradley, as Oliver's father, who gives a heartbreaking eulogy at the funeral intertwining sorrow and gratitude while bemoaning his lapses as the parent of a gay son. Kaitlyn Dever is hilarious as a narcissistic actress in Oliver's film series, who in an inappropriate speech at the funeral is very upset that now he's dead, there won't be another film role for her.

I would be remiss in not commenting on Rob Simonsen's sublime piano music score with Ole Bratt Birkeland's lovely cinematography with Paris never looking more alluring or romantic. The production design is elegant, reminiscent of those 1980s designer cosmetics ads.

Despite these complaints, the film centers as much on friendship as it does on grief, particularly as one struggles to process conflicting emotions. Levy's skilled at directing actors, as long as they have robust roles to execute.

And some of his lines, like "Grief is a little ulcer that never goes away," will stick with the audience. He effectively conveys there's no one way to grieve, that it can't be fixed, only lived through. You just keep on living and loving. There is warmth and good intentions, even if it seems forced. Levy's forte is still comedy, but there's definite promise, so we're eager to see more of what he can offer. At 40, with a little more polishing, Levy shows every indication of being one of the queer community's engaging cinematic talents.


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