To acquire wisdom, one must observe

‘Our Friend’ is not a regular cancer movie

Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s “Our Friend” (2019) is one of the most sentimental movies of the year with its refreshing take on the cancer genre. The movie was adapted from Matthew Teague’s memoir that was published in Esquire magazine in 2015. The “friend” in the title refers to Dane Faucheux (Jason Segel), who moves into Matt’s (Casey Affleck) house after Matt’s wife Nicole (Dakota Johnson) is diagnosed with terminal gastric cancer. While the breakout performance by Jason Segel boosts the movie’s success, some unresolved issues at the movie’s heart weaken Cowperthwaite’s narrative.  

The narrative choice that makes this movie stand out is the fact that Cowperthwaite does not place cancer at the center of the movie’s dramatic core. In fact, the movie is more about the friendship between the three characters and Dane’s life-changing sacrifice of leaving his whole life behind to help his friends. In the final scene, after reading a piece Matthew writes, Dane says, “I thought you were writing about Nicole,” to which Matt responds, “So did I.” 

There are a lot of sentimental scenes with tear-jerking potential that may work as the climax of a “cancer movie,” like the scene in which Nicole explains to her children how she has a limited time left to live, or the scene in which she passes away. Instead, the climax of the movie comes long after Nicole’s death, when Dane prepares to leave the house. The tone is much more subtle as Matt says goodbye to Dane. Teague confesses in his essay, “Dane’s leaving hit me harder than Nicole’s because I wasn’t prepared for it.” The scene captures this feeling seamlessly with both Affleck’s and Segel’s masterful performances. 

The on-screen chemistry of the main cast helps Cowperthwaite engage her audience with the story. Dakota Johnson nails the depiction of Nicole’s character through different stages of cancer. Affleck’s performance is also above average, even though he has had many superior performances in his career. The real star of the show, however, is Jason Segel. It is often a huge success when a comedian agrees to star in a drama. Adam Sandler in “Punch Drunk Love” and “Uncut Gems” and Robin Williams in “Good Will Hunting” are easy examples. Segel proves that he is more than just a comedian; he is capable of hitting the right notes while playing a dramatic role. The final goodbye scene as well as his solo trekking journey are the best performances of his career. The great performances, led by Segel, leave you wanting to explore the characters more deeply, and that is where the movie starts being problematic.

The movie makes a lot of unconventional narrative choices, and some of them do not work as well as others. The decision to focus on the friendship storyline more than the cancer storyline is refreshing, but the non-linear narrative structure doesn’t work. The film is structured in a way that places the cancer diagnosis as an origin point and goes back and forth from there. While the plot after the diagnosis works really well and hits all the right emotional notes, the pre-diagnosis bit doesn’t add any depth to the story. In fact, the pre-diagnosis story plants a lot of seeds that are not harvested later in the movie. Subplots like Matthew’s workaholism or Nicole’s affair with an unknown guy before the diagnosis are, unfortunately, left unexplored. 

There is one subplot in particular that could have elevated the dramatic effect so much higher. We never get to learn Dane’s motivation to leave his work, family and fiancé behind to move to a different state just to help his friends. Teague’s real-life memoir does not provide any explanation more than that he was an incredibly good human being. My theory, however, is that the filmmakers wanted to show a platonic relationship between Dane and Nicole, although Teague clearly crosses this possibility out in his memoir by saying, “He offered us his friendship with such humility, such deference to our marriage, that I trusted him from the beginning.” I am not suggesting altering the real story for dramatic purposes, but there were already seeds of a platonic relationship in the movie that go unexplored.

The first time we meet Dane is also the time when he asks Nicole out while Nicole is already engaged to Matthew. Then there is a scene where Dane and Nicole discuss how terrible Matt is as a workaholic husband and that Nicole is the only woman that understands Dane’s value. Lastly, there is a scene where Dane cries on his own while listening to a pre-recorded voicemail by Nicole and Matt’s family after a solo trekking journey in the canyons. While not explicitly discussed in the film, Cowperthwaite clearly wants her audience to compare Dane and Matt as husbands to Nicole. The pre-diagnosis part of the story is essentially about Matt traveling for work while Dane replaces him as a husband and father figure. But once the diagnosis opens a new chapter in the characters’ lives, the “romantic relationship” is never mentioned again. This is especially disappointing since the overall chemistry between the cast makes you wish to learn even more about their pasts. 

Cowperthwaite’s bravery to diverge from the conventional cancer narrative should be appreciated. Although her narrative leaves some subplots unexplored, “Our Friend” is a satisfying movie to watch, especially because of Jason Segel’s strong entry into the dramatic realm.

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