The Greatest is the kind of movie you’re forced to watch on TBS while visiting your parents on a Saturday afternoon. Your mother, of course, will guilt you into sitting down and watching it with her, so she can cry in front of you and remind herself you were not a mistake. You will have to sit there, trying not to look bored or amused — a kind of blank expression you’ve mastered after interacting with your parents for 25 years — until the credits roll, and she, wiping away tears with the heel of her palm, will thank you for spending time with her and watching the movie, and she is just so grateful to be your mother and so proud of who you’ve become, and you’ll never know the power of her love until you (gratefully barren) become a parent. You attempt to ask for gas money.
Emotionally slutty films like The Greatest have a propensity for the dramatic, offering histrionics and musical scores that swell, force-feeding emotion rather than trusting the audience to feel something on their own. Heavy-handed performances, cliché-infested dialogue, cathartic road trips, and more white people than an Eddie Bauer catalog — these indulgent melodramas (Stepmom, To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday, Marvin’s Room) have created a genre of cinematherapy one step beyond the Lifetime channel, the only differences being commercials and $10 tickets.
Susan Sarandon (doomed to play grief-stricken mothers for the rest of her career) and Pierce Brosnan play Grace and Allen, two parents mourning the death of their high school son, Bennett (Aaron Johnson), who was killed in a car accident the night he and his girlfriend, Rose (Carey Mulligan), lost their virginity to each other. Shit gets messy when Rose shows up at Grace and Allen’s home to tell them she’s three months pregnant with their dead son’s child, and she needs a place to stay. Since the morning-after pill or abortion is, like, too complicated for such an easy and formulaic narrative, Rose decides to carry the pregnancy to term, despite being broke and having just graduated from high school. But in the magical land of Hollywood, wealthy folks are always willing to take in desperate pregnant girls, so Rose moves in and everyone gets their grieve on.
Unlike Todd Field’s brilliant take on the death-of-a-child story with In The Bedroom, first time writer-director Shana Feste does not allow parental pain to fester in strained silences or bitter resentment; instead, she opts for weepy flamboyance and unbearable moments of catharsis: Allen throws Grace into the ocean to ‘calm her down,’ before pulling her wet body into his arms and smothering her with violent kisses; Bennett’s younger brother (Johnny Simmons, trying his best to underplay a very overplayed script) gets fucked up on pills and stumbles into a grief therapy session, delivering a teary-eyed monologue; Rose goes into labor and asks the family to recount their fondest memories of Bennett, which is just Feste reassuring us of Bennett’s wonderfulness, rather than creating a specific character who is more than an idea of someone great. Grief is slimy and cheap when treated with such laziness and tidiness.
The film’s best moment is when the three family members ride home from the funeral without speaking, allowing subtlety to imply heaviness. It’s a delicate scene that is too brief to save the shitstorm of laughable material you just paid $10 to watch. Save your money, read a book, and wait until your mom pats the empty seat next to her on the couch and asks if you want to watch a movie.