Nick Hornby’s fourth novel, A Long Way Down (2005), boasts a singular premise: Four disparate people all decide to commit suicide by throwing themselves from the top of the same London skyscraper at the same time on the same night (New Year’s Eve). When they encounter each other atop the building, they collectively agree to postpone their deaths until at least Valentine’s Day, in order to see whether life might in fact be worth living. Finding the right tone for such a story—black comedy? gritty drama?—would surely be tricky; judging from very mixed reviews of the book, Hornby didn’t necessarily do a bang-up job in the first place. This film adaptation, however, never succeeds in settling on a tone at all, veering ineptly from flippant goofiness to maudlin sentiment and back again. It presents four people who no longer care to exist, then fails to make a strong case for why their continued existence is necessary or desirable.
Of the four, Martin Sharp (Pierce Brosnan), a former morning-show host, has the most conventional reason to off himself, having lost both his family and his reputation after doing a brief stint in prison for statutory rape. His new friends are Maureen (Toni Collette), who spends all her time and energy caring for her severely disabled son but insists that he’s not the reason she wants to die, citing generic feelings of helplessness; Jess (Imogen Poots), a vivacious young women recently dumped by her boyfriend (though she doesn’t seem remotely the type to be fazed by that); and JJ (Aaron Paul), an American musician who falsely claims to have terminal brain cancer (an element that’s apparently original to Jack Thorne’s screenplay) but in reality doesn’t know why he’s suicidal—he just is. Improbably, the quartet become a media sensation, appearing on talk shows to explain why they chose not to jump and then taking a joint vacation to Spain to duck the limelight. Copious bonding ensues, and leases on life are ultimately renewed.
Even though all four actors frequently share the frame, they don’t seem to be in the same movie: Brosnan and Poots clearly believe A Long Way Down is a comedy (though Brosnan aims for light drollery and Poots for broad, wacky high jinks), while Collette and Paul are convinced it’s a deadly serious portrait of despair. The former approach tends to be more successful, if only because suicidal depression is treated here as if it’s something one can simply shake off by stumbling into a mediocre sitcom. Director Pascal Chaumeil (Heartbreaker), a Frenchman making his English-language debut, demonstrates little facility for the sort of thorny moral dilemmas Hornby favors, keeping things bright and easily digestible. He seems most interested in Jess, the one character who isn’t emotionally paralyzed, and Poots takes advantage with an aggressively abrasive performance that at least counteracts Paul’s dull brooding. (They appeared together in Need For Speed as well, but that phrase takes on a new meaning for Paul in this context.) In the end, though, none of these people is interesting enough even to merit a basic rooting interest. One doesn’t necessarily wish them dead, but offscreen would be nice.