Review: Grief goes by the book in `The Greatest'

By David Germain
AP Movie Writer / March 29, 2010

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If you caught Miley Cyrus' "The Last Song" and you still have not cried your eyes dry, the see-how-we-mourn melodrama "The Greatest" might serve to wring out the last of your tears.

First-time writer-director Shana Feste's psych-101 study shows us the sloppy, lingering process of grieving can play out on a neat and tidy timetable, where everybody gets a catharsis and returns home healed.

While Feste tugs -- or yanks and claws -- shamelessly at those proverbial heartstrings, her story of a teenage son's death is made tearily tolerable by grim, intense though sometimes excessive performances by Pierce Brosnan, Susan Sarandon and Carey Mulligan.

Continuing a breakout year that brought her an Academy Award nomination for "An Education," Mulligan is the greatest thing about "The Greatest," her quiet, magnetic grace anchoring a lot of other elements that easily could have blown up into one long ululation of anguish.

The next-greatest thing about the movie is co-star Aaron Johnson, potentially on the verge of his own breakout year with two lead roles, in the hilarious superhero comedy "Kick-Ass" and as the young John Lennon in "Nowhere Boy."

As departed teen Bennett Brewer, Johnson shares sweet, aching moments of new love with Mulligan's Rose that really help viewers grieve along with those he leaves behind after he's abruptly snatched away.

Bennett and Rose's long, shy high school courtship plays out in fleeting flashbacks that are the most authentic and moving moments of "The Greatest."

After they finally come together for one night, a car wreck takes Bennett's life, leaving his parents, Allen and Grace (Brosnan and Sarandon) to do the familiar dance of mourning we've seen a few too many times on screen, one spouse stiff-arming away his grief in denial and the other immersing herself in hers.

Then Rose comes calling to say she's pregnant with Bennett's child. She's welcomed into the Bennett household by Allen, while Grace stews and resents her presence.

The only place Grace finds solace is at the hospital bedside of the coma-stricken man (Michael Shannon) whose car struck her son's and who was the last person to speak with her boy.

Feste weaves in a younger, black-sheep-ish brother (Johnny Simmons), an underachiever with a drug problem who of course feels invisible to his parents in the afterglow of his "martyred" brother. And he has his own contrived mini-drama with a grief junkie (Zoe Kravitz) he meets in a counseling group.

Like a college creative-writing project, "The Greatest" is overloaded with little symmetries, stagy outbursts, strained revelations, a finale that mends too cleanly. People grieve in their own ways, but "The Greatest" showcases only the biggest, most theatrical varieties.

The movie might have resonated more if it threw out some of the grief-counseling cliches and let the idiosyncrasies of the characters dictate more of the drama.

But if all you want is a good cry, "The Greatest" will comply. Tears are infectious, so when actors this good bawl their eyes out, more than a few people in the audience will sniffle and sob along with them.

"The Greatest," a Paladin release, is rated R for language, some sexual content and drug use. Running time: 100 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.


Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G -- General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG -- Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 -- Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R -- Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 -- No one under 17 admitted.

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