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Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Boom Crap! or Not Enough Cooke"
1 stars

Ever since it premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won both the Grand Jury and Audience Award prizes, "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" has been receiving raves from critics and preview audiences alike and the current betting is that it may well go on to become this summer's designated out-of-left-field surprise hit in the manner of "Little Miss Sunshine." At this point, the juggernaut behind this film is so strong that only a foul ogre who hates life and love would even dare to suggest that it is anything other than a quirky and heartfelt delight from start to finish. Well, before I get back to grinding bones to make my bread, allow me to take a few minutes to stake out such a heretical position because I have to confess that I found it to be a smug and overly self-conscious bore whose mildly endearing qualities are thoroughly subsumed by a narrative that is never as smart, clever or subversive as it thinks it is and which contains one of the least likable and interesting central characters in recent memory, at least in films not featuring the word "entourage" in the title.

That character is Greg (Thomas Mann), a teenager who carries with him an aura of charming awkwardness that he has carefully cultivated over the years. Unwilling to make any kind of real emotional commitment to anything for fear that people, especially of the female variety, will reject him because is just so odd and unique, his solution is to instead maintain only the vaguest of relationships with all of his classmates to stay on their good side while otherwise doing his best to otherwise fade into the woodwork. This arms-length approach even extends to his one real friend, Earl (RJ Cyler), whom he prefers to refer to as "my co-worker." To further ensure that he doesn't have to maintain any real contact with his peers, he and Earl spend their lunch hours in the office of a sympathetic teacher (Jon Bernthal) watching classic cinema (The Criterion Collection is cited so often here that it probably deserves a co-starring credit) and their time after school making sophomoric home movie parodies with titles like "Pooping Tom" and "My Dinner with Andre the Giant." To be fair, some of these are clever (I especially liked "Grumpy Cul-De-Sacs") but like much of the rest of the film, the gimmick gets old pretty quickly.

Greg's too-hip-for-the-room aura receives its first major prick when his parents (Nick Offerman and Connie Britton) inform him that one of the classmates that he barely knows, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), has just been diagnosed with leukemia and insist that he should spend some time with her. To Greg, the notion of an actual interpersonal relationship is horrifying beyond measure and to be honest, Rachel isn't exactly thrilled with the idea either, even before she sees her mother (Molly Shannon) doing her best Mrs. Robinson impression the first time Greg drops by. Eventually the two begin to hit it off on a genially superficial level but Greg's glibness can only go so far and it is Earl who winds up sending their relationship into deeper and more personal (though decidedly non-romantic as Greg continues to have romantic designs on another classmate) areas. Eventually it is decided that Greg and Earl will make a film for Rachel, presumably one that goes a little deeper than the one-joke goofs that have made up their oeuvre to date. The question, though, is whether Greg can actually do that and say the things that he wants to tell her cinematically that he is incapable of doing through words and whether he figure out how to do it before it is too late.

Truth be told, my antipathy towards movies exploring teen angst dates back to well before the long-ago days when I was an actual teen--for every smart and perceptive movie about the adolescent experience, such as "Heathers" or "Say Anything" (both of which, perhaps not coincidentally, were released just as I was about to graduate high school, for what that is worth), there were at least four or five that depicted teens as moronic horn-dogs, fodder for mad slashers or, worst of all, sanctimonious dweebs who constantly whined about how nobody (meaning nobody over 21) understood them, their dreams and their pains. (Put it this way, I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago when John Hughes was cranking out his string of pandering teen-oriented hits and I still found them as unbelievable and contrived as any of their competition--of course, he was dead to me when he sent Andie off with Blaine instead of Ducky at the end of "Pretty in Pink," but I digress.) I especially detest the sub-genre of teen films in which one of the kids is dying of a terminal disease and spends most of their remaining time on Earth giving lessons about the preciousness of life and love so that those left behind can feel better about themselves once they dry their tears--films like Gus Van Sant's blessedly forgotten misfire "Restless" and the dreadful box-office smash "The Fault in Our Stars."

Between the self-aware title and the central character who knows all of the big film cliches and is willing to point them out at the drop of a hat, I went into "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" expecting a film that would knowingly subvert the conventions of the genre while at the same time figuring out how to cut through all the crap and connect with viewers on a real and direct level. The trouble is that, much like its main character, the film is never as clever or insightful or subversive as it likes to pretend that it is. The screenplay by Jesse Andrews (adapting his own book) talks a good game about how different it is going to be via Greg's hyper-aware narration but when it comes to actually doing it, it never fails to retreat to the tried and true and trite. There is not a single cliche of the genre that this film does not hesitate to fully embrace in its determination to score easy tears and laughs from viewers and when it runs out of those, it goes to further contrived extremes in order to keep viewers interested. At one point, Greg assures viewers of a certain fact regarding the direction that the narrative is headed in and when it winds up going in the opposite direction, he just says that he lied because he wanted to keep those of us in the audience interested. That, in a nutshell, is the thing that annoyed me the most about the film--it tries to be both an authentic tearjerker and an ironic deconstruction of such things but never finds the right tone for either approach. Instead of serving as a rejoinder to the likes of "The Fault in Our Stars," it is virtually a clone and if I had to pick between the two, I might actually go with "The Fault in Our Stars" because as bad as it was, its idiocies had a certain sincerity to them that I preferred to the virtual air quotes that this one is couched in through. (Then again, this one doesn't feature anyone dry-humping during a visit to a Holocaust memorial, so perhaps it is a draw after all.)

The awkward blend of schmaltz and irony is more than enough to sink the film but there are plenty of other problems with it. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon throws in plenty of cineaste in-jokes and stylistic flourishes but when it comes to providing the kind of emotional grounding that might allow the third-act melodramatics to pay off in some significant way, he is as clueless as his protagonist. Speaking of Greg, his constant navel-gazing whininess positions him as an asshole of the highest order, one that not even his eventual emotional breakthrough is able to overcome. That would not be such a problem if he were at least an interesting asshole but as embodied by Mann, he is the kind of twerp that even the most peaceful-minded high school student might have fantasized about cramming into the nearest locker. What makes matters worse is that the film is so centered around him that the other characters end up coming across as afterthought--considering that the other people mentioned in the title are given little more to do than, respectively, say "dem titties" and die slowly, you may wonder why they didn't just call the movie "Me."

One thing that I did like about "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" is the performance by Olivia Cooke, whom you may have seen on the big screen in such instantly forgettable horror programmers as "The Quiet Ones," "The Signal" and "Ouija" and on the small screen as Norman Bates' ailing friend on "Bates Motel." Even though there is precious little for her to do with her character other than to make the dweeb into a better person, she nevertheless gives Rachel the kind of focus and import otherwise lacking in the material to such an extent that I found myself wishing that there was a way of transporting her into a more worthwhile narrative. When the film for Rachel is finally seen in its entirety at the end, it does generate a certain amount of genuine emotion as well, though that is due almost entirely to the deft deployment of Brian Eno's "The Big Ship" on the soundtrack. My suggestion to you--go to iTunes, download Eno's 1975 classic album "Another Green World" and give this silliness the pass that it so richly deserves.

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originally posted: 06/12/15 07:42:12
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2015 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Nashville Film Festival For more in the 2015 Nashville Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Chicago Critics Film Festival For more in the 2015 Chicago Critics Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Independent Film Festival Boston For more in the 2015 Independent Film Festival Boston series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Nantucket Film Festival For more in the 2015 Nantucket Film Festival series, click here.

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  12-Jun-2015 (PG-13)
  DVD: 06-Oct-2015


  DVD: 06-Oct-2015

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