Love is patient; love is kind. That much you’ve heard before. But death … Death is a nasty son of a gun. Death is ugly; it stinks; it takes no prisoners and permanently scars all who witness it. Matthew Teague’s “The Friend: Love Is Not a Big Enough Word” tells the story of both those abstract concepts — love and death — through wrenching anecdotal experience.
Teague’s wife Nicole died of cancer at age 34, and their best friend Dane stood by the family through the worst of it. When Nicole’s hair started falling out, he shaved his in solidarity. When Matt collapsed on the hospital floor after getting the terminal diagnosis, it was Dane who picked him up. And when the couple’s dog had to be put down on Christmas — because the poor animal had cancer too — Dane took care of it.
All these details and more make up a devastating essay, which Matt published in Esquire magazine, winning a National Magazine Award for putting the experience into words, but only a fraction of them make it into “The Friend,” director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s big-screen interpretation of Teague’s story, in which a trio of attractive actors — Dakota Johnson, Casey Affleck and Jason Segel — help turn this terrible experience into an inspirational group hug.
That tendency is there in the essay, which opted to celebrate Dane’s supportive role in helping the Teagues through this impossibly difficult time. But so much of the unpleasantness has been scrubbed from the picture, until what remains is precisely the kind of dishonest, sanitized no-help-to-anyone TV-movie version of death that inspired Teague to set the record straight in the first place. The performances by all three are top-notch: Affleck goes every bit as deep as he did in “Manchester by the Sea,” Segel taps into his exceptional relatability (including a profoundly sad streak during a suicidal walkabout) and Johnson has the tough job of dying gracefully.
By why should she go gracefully? Nicole didn’t. “We don’t tell each other the truth about dying, as a people,” Teague wrote, going on to use far more eloquent language than I have here, or than I could even muster, because he witnessed it firsthand. He witnessed “the clear tube pumping feces up from her bowels and out her nose.” He saw “little bits of half-digested food emerging from Nicole’s wounds.” And when her body started to eat itself from the inside out, he felt helpless as “her stomach belched up a geyser of yellow crap, which flowed down her sides onto the bed.”
No one wants to see these things in a movie. Reading about them is enough to make you weep. And discovering that for all the pain that Matt and Nicole were feeling, they had someone there to back them up, well, that’s awfully inspirational. But “The Friend” is not an inspirational essay, and how dare they turn it into that kind of movie?
No doubt, Nicole was a special person to her family and friends, but it’s the fact of Nicole’s unspecialness to the universe that makes her story something that resonates as widely as it does. “The Friend” dares readers to wrap their heads around the notion that death — and cancer in particular — can choose anyone, at any age, and blot the beauty clean out of their life. What Matthew Teague went through was real, and what he shared was too. But the movie is a polite, all-too-tactful reenactment of the truth, reconfigured as melodrama by screenwriter Brad Inglesby.
It doesn’t stoop to professional tearjerk Nicholas Sparks’ level, inventing terminal diseases to manipulate cry-ready readers. But nor is it “Amour,” which is one of the few movies to look honestly at death, and to show the lengths to which we’ll go to spare the ones we love from such suffering. If Cowperthwaite has a model, I’d reckon it’s Terrence Malick, who similarly assembles entire films not so much from scenes as from snippets, candid moments snatched from life, stitched together with jump cuts in an abstract out-of-order montage.
Inglesby’s script jumps around in time, beginning near the end, in 2013, as Matt (Affleck) and Nicole (Johnson) discuss how to break the news to their kids — the news being that Mom is going to die. They decide to dispense with euphemisms (e.g., “Mom is going away”), which makes for a wrenching scene … 80 minutes later, when the story finally circles back around to the conversation it promises at the top. Most audiences will know that Nicole has cancer going into the theater, so maybe it doesn’t need telling, although the movie presumes an almost superhuman ability to read its mind, especially as its title character is concerned.
Thirteen years earlier, in New Orleans, Nicole introduces her husband (an already weathered-looking Affleck) to a guy who works at her theater. Dane (Segel) made the mistake of asking her out, not realizing she was married, which might normally be a deal-breaker for any budding friendship, but the two men hit it off. Dane confides that he’s thinking about stand-up comedy, which will be convenient when Segel’s called on to make audiences laugh later. But his jokes feel out of place, like some Robin Williams improv in the middle of a Holocaust movie.
“The Friend” skips around some more. Another longtime friend (Azita Ghanizada) changes her hair for each different era. I think the New Orleans chapter was supposed to be college, although no one looks young enough for that to be plausible. At some point, the Teagues have kids, Molly (Isabella Kai) and Evie (Violet McGraw), who don’t seem to age (how could they, given the film’s needle-drop chronology?). And at another, Dane decides to move in. That’s something we’re just supposed to understand, the explanation omitted somewhere in the nonlinear shuffle of time: X “years before diagnosis,” Y “months after diagnosis,” and so on.
“The Friend” makes it harder than it should to recognize what’s going on: In one scene, the Teagues are hosting a dinner party, in which they joke about how Dane seems to lack ambition, and then a few minutes/years later, they’re threatening to punch out someone who calls him a slacker. In any case, it’s hardly normal for someone to abandon his girlfriend, job and responsibilities in New Orleans to move to Fairhope, Ala., the way Dane does — morale reinforcements in a losing battle. His sacrifice becomes the film’s focus.
Hospice care, tricky subplots involving infidelity and a bucket list too ambitious to make happen each reinforce the movie’s idea of unflinching “realism.” But the movie doesn’t have the nerve to do what Teague did. He summarized the way last-breath scenes tend to go in the movies — “People hold hands and exchange glances to acknowledge how profound the moment is just before a doctor checks for a pulse and announces, ‘It’s done’” — before describing how Nicole’s really went. Except “The Friend” defaults back to the kid-gloves cliché, unwilling to confront what it’s ostensibly about.