Despite a star-studded cast and a novel from Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) as its source material, A Long Way Down stumbles early and never regains its balance, leaning sometimes toward drama, other times toward comedy, without succeeding at either.
The film begins on New Year’s Eve, with Martin Sharp (Pierce Brosnan) trudging a ladder up several flights of stairs, telling us why he’s about to kill himself. The once-popular morning television host has seen his reputation ruined after having an affair with an underage woman. He’s lost his job, spent time in prison and the life he shared with his wife and two daughters is gone forever.
Once on the roof of a fictional London landmark meant to be a suicide hotspot, he lays his ladder over scaffolding and carefully steps across its rungs. Just as he readies to leap, he’s interrupted by another would-be jumper, Maureen (Toni Collette), who emerges from the rooftop door. The two enter a negotiation of sorts, and Martin agrees to let her jump first.
He makes his way off the ladder and onto the roof as a frantic young woman (Imogen Poots) bursts onto the scene and starts running to the edge. The young woman, Jess, is held back by Martin and Maureen, which is when we meet J.J. (Aaron Paul, of Breaking Bad fame), a suicidal failed musician and pizza deliveryman who emerges from the shadows with a box of pizza. Like the rest of the movie, the whole scene feels awkward and forced, and entirely misses the mark.
The idea of four people converging at the same time and place to kill themselves is a tricky premise, one that requires a deft directorial hand to keep disbelief at bay and to strike the right tone. It’s clear in the opening scene that director Pascal Chaumeil, whose past features (Heartbreaker, A Perfect Plan) have all been romcoms, doesn’t have that hand – at least not yet – and it’s hard to maintain hope the film will improve.
We don’t feel any of the deep pain that would drive someone to take their life, nor do we get any laughs from what could have been a darkly comic moment. Instead, we watch the characters quickly step back from the brink and sit down to talk things out, forming an unlikely friendship as they all agree to a pact to put off killing themselves for 90 days. Just as they agree, the sun breaches the skyline, illuminating the group: a new day, a new year. The symbolism of the moment feels painfully cheap.
From there we follow the group as they make a television appearance on the same show Martin used to host (the London press eats up the story), then escape to an island getaway on Martin’s dime, where we see them all start to laugh again and rediscover the joys of living. It’s a shame Martin can’t invite the audience along too.
Emotionally, the characters remain mostly walled off (the one exception being Collette’s Maureen, whom we watch undertake the heartbreaking rituals that go along with caring for her severely disabled son), and even if one of them was about to off themselves, we probably wouldn’t care all that much. But even so, the possibility of suicide always feels distant, leaving the film without any sense of urgency, or direction.
A Long Way Down limps predictably to a finish, failing to give us a single kernel of wisdom, except perhaps that suicidal people should put off killing themselves to see if things get better. It also squanders a talented cast that never achieves any real chemistry, and we get the sense that, like their characters (and the audience), the actors feel stuck in a bad situation that can’t end fast enough.
A LONG WAY DOWN (2) Directed by Pascal Chaumeil • Starring Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collette, Imogen Poots, Aaron Paul • Rated R • 96 min • At Osio Cinemas.