“Me Before You” arrived in theaters on Friday with a dash of pedigree — it’s based on a novel by Jojo Moyes, whose romantic fiction for adults has been garlanded with praise — but let’s be clear: The film’s central characters may be 26 and 31 years old, but at heart this is another squeaky-clean YA tearjerker built around a princess too good for words, another saintly love story submerged in youthful doom. In “Me Before You,” two impossibly good-looking people drift into a slow-burn romance, but the love is haunted by tragedy, the kind only love can conquer. You light up my life! The movie seems to be scrubbed of sex, but it delivers — and inspires — one bodily fluid with bountiful abandon, and that is tears. It’s a formula that goes back to “Love Story” (or maybe “Anna Karenina,” though Tolstoy wasn’t quite so intent on leaving you with that feel-good feeling). “Me Before You” is undeniably a piece of product, yet it doesn’t create the usual icky aftertaste. It’s sweetly restrained about manipulating the hell out of you. And that’s because it has several things going for it that the recent spate of YA romantic tearjerkers with macabre underpinnings (“The Fault in Our Stars,” “If I Stay”) do not. What’s the difference? Here are a handful of reasons why both teenagers and adults can watch “Me Before You” without hating themselves in the morning.
No fault whatsoever in our stars. “We had faces!” said Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard,” referring to the glory days of early Hollywood, when actors beamed out at you from the silver screen with larger-than-life features. These days, some of the prettiest young actors leave no imprint, as if they’d been genetically modified (their beauty isn’t creased by inner conflict), but in “Me Before You,” Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin have faces that stay with you, because they’re alive with expression. Clarke, from “Game of Thrones,” plays Louisa “Lou” Clark, an angelic free spirit whose wardrobe suggests Sandra Dee trying to go thrift-ship punk (she favors garishly loud mohair sweaters, madly patterned mini-skirts, and polka-dot high-heeled Mary Janes). But for all the fireworks of her clothing, it’s from the neck up that she bedazzles. Clarke has one of those smiles that’s so lush and ripe you want to pluck it off a tree, and her eyes are playful dark saucers, but it’s her eyebrows that give a performance of their own. They wriggle and bend, they shoot up into her forehead and dance, they create a full-on flirtation with the audience.
It’s no wonder that Lou hooks Will Traynor, a sexy-soulful athlete-daredevil financial broker…who has been left a quadriplegic after a motorcycle slammed into him. She’s hired to be his caretaker, and it’s not long before those eyebrows melt right through his irascible torment. We can tell because Sam Claflin, whose Finnick Odair was one of the best things in the “Hunger Games” series, spends the first third of the movie in scraggly hair and a beard, which dampens his appeal far more than Will’s being in a wheelchair, but then he gets cleaned up, and Claflin, his complex of dimples now revealed, isn’t just killer handsome. In “Me Before You,” his grin, with its slight touch of a smirk — that hint of restrained abashment — creates an unmistakable echo of Hugh Grant’s. Forget the story: The movie convinces you why these two people just want to go on looking at each other.
There will always be an England for movies like this one. Does YA product look classier with posh accents and Continental settings? Of course it does! Call it “Brief Encounter” syndrome. Will is a very wealthy dude, and not because he did so well on his job. He comes from money. He has burrowed, in his wisecracking despair, into a sprawling apartment tucked inside his family estate, which looks like a larger version of Bruce Wayne’s mansion. It gazes out through the mist over a castle, which is a really major castle, the kind you’d have to scale…and yes, it’s their castle. So Lou has found her Prince Charming. If this level of wealth were presented so flagrantly in an American setting, it would almost have to look corrupt. But in “Me Before You,” the luxuriousness of Will’s existence is always, somehow, in the background. And that’s because, as English family money that has been there for generations, we can accept it, in some “Fifty Shades of Jane Austen” way, as wealth that is not, by virtue of its existence, oppressing anyone else. Besides, the money can hardly compensate for everything that Will has lost. He can’t move any part of his body from the neck down, and that makes this the rare tycoon fantasy that inspires us to feel, “Who needs it?”
The other quintessential British element in “Me Before You” is the spikiness of the dialogue between the “chatty” Lou and the gloomily witty Will. Moyes gives good stiff-upper-lip repartee. When Will and Lou finally go out on a date (to hear a Mozart oboe concerto!), she wears a dress of sexiest scarlet, and as the two are getting ready to say goodnight, he confesses, with that perfect tone of bittersweet Hugh Grantian rue, “I don’t want to go in yet. I just want to be a man who’s been to a concert with a girl in a red dress.” That line, translated from the British, means: “You’re breaking my heart, because I love you and I will never stop never stopping.”
Far from a soft cop-out, the movie’s plot has a real edge. We’ve been engineered, through many decades of movies like this one, to expect the story of a hunk in a wheelchair to go a certain way. The saintly Lou isn’t just taking care of Will, or falling for him; she’s trying, quite consciously, to inspire him to embrace life again. And since Claflin makes Will a broken man with a powerful life force inside him, we can see where this is heading…except that it isn’t. Will is so in thrall to the life he used to have that he can neither abide nor accept his present state. He wants to go to Switzerland to die by assisted suicide. Ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable for a Hollywood youth romance to feature this not just as a story hook, but as a justified desire. But times change, and so do heartthrob movie heroes. In “Me Before You,” the audience wants Lou to save Will, to show him that life is worth living, but the originality of the movie is that it makes an absolute case that Will’s desire to stop living is an expression of his life force. He loves life too much to carry on in this compromised state. If he can’t make love to Lou, what’s the point of loving her?
I personally think that if the end of the movie had lingered, a little more explicitly, on Will’s final moments, “Me Before You” could have added $25 million to its total domestic box-office tally. Yet the film has already done better than expected, and for good reason: It’s a YA movie that has a touch of class to go along with its heart.