Why You Might Have a Real Hard Time Crying at 'Me Before You'

Me Before You, the Sparksian rom-dram starring Game of Thrones' Emilia Clarke and The Hunger Games' Sam Claflin, opens Friday in wide release. It's based on the bestselling novel of the same name by JoJo Moyes, who also wrote the screenplay, and among other things it features Ed Sheeran's two biggest hits deployed to sublime emotional effect.  Loving really can hurt sometimes, it turns out.

The movie follows your standard romantic narrative trajectory, except not quite. Like 2014's summer tear jerker The Fault in Our Stars -- during my own viewing of which, where I'll come right out and say I was the only visible adult male in attendance, I was obliged to excuse myself and gasp-cry into a toilet bowl for something like 90 seconds, so thorough had been the emotional bulldozing just endured --- Me Before You deals with an improbable romance in the face of vertiginously stacked medical odds.

Will Traynor (Claflin) is a white-collar dreamboat with all the expected appurtenances therefrom: pristine London loft, leggy blonde girlfriend, kickin' bod toned, tanned and readied by extreme sports. But he's paralyzed from the neck down after being hit by a motorcycle in the film's opening scene. Will's parents (Janet McTeer and Charles Dance) -- who, in case you're curious about their social standing, have lately repurposed their mansion's stables as an annex for their son -- hire the town goofball Louisa (Clarke) in whom we are meant to be endeared by wacky apparel and domestic strife. Louisa’s father (Downton Abbey’s Brendan Coyle) has been out of work for some time. Her sister’s (Jenna Coleman) got a baby. Her boyfriend (Matthew Lewis, of Longbottom fame) cares much more about the caloric content of his salads than he does about her. Louisa never even enrolled in college so that she could provide for her family.

This familiar setup is primed for a blameless formula -- Miserable, Mean Upper-Class Man beset by circumstances beyond his control softens due to the care and compassion of a Dowdy Lower Class Woman for whom he begins to genuinely fall -- to which it adheres in broad strokes, but it's yanked into very weird territory early on, because so deep and dark is Will's depression, post-accident, that he's decided to end his life. He's promised his parents he'll mull over the decision for six months, but his plan all along is to call it quits at a euthanasia clinic in Switzerland. He's got an estate lawyer and everything.

In walks Lou, then, ignorant to the freight of her contract gig.  She's distraught when she first overhears Mr. and Mrs. Traynor arguing about the sitch -- and with good reason -- but her outlook shifts (a few steps behind the audience, who can see the plot developing a thousand miles away): "Maybe I can do more than [make him enjoy the time he's got left]," Lou tells her sister. "Maybe I can make him want to go on living!"  

(Cue montage of Emilia Clarke merrily diving into the available literature on people with disabilities at the town library.)

Why this is all very weird is because Me Before You is supposed to be a cathartic sobfest. That that's its whole point, at least from a marketing perspective, is to me beyond dispute.  If you disagree, I'd direct your attention to the Kleenex, in Me Before You packaging, distributed individually to the attendees at last week's press screening at Crocker Park, which ritual (the Kleenex distribution) I have no choice but to assume was replicated at promo screenings nationwide. The studio isn't wrongheaded, either, for anticipating box-office success based on a tear jerker marketing strategy.  I don't think it's speaking out of turn to say that a lot of women, the primary intended audience for films of this ilk, revel in a "good cry" from time to time.  (Everybody Loves Raymond, Season 4, Ep. 20 -- "Alone Time" -- is a pretty good source for independent corroboration.) Crying at the movies, or just crying to "let it out," feels great.

And though varying degrees of self-consciousness, even complicity, obtain in our emotional manipulation when we're watching movies like Me Before You -- our tears aren't being organically jerked so much as they're being more like consensually induced -- most of us are willing to shrug our shoulders and say the ends (loosely: emotional catharsis) justify the means (tragic circumstance as narrative bait and hook, pitch-perfectly deployed Ed Sheeran ballads, etc.)

And just purely as colorful aside here, the most and hardest I’ve cried at a movie, in the post Fault in Our Stars era -- hand to God -- was Furious 7, and it’s not close.

But nary a tear was shed by moi during Me Before You. I was too busy considering the ethical quandary of euthanasia in the case of Will Traynor. I won't conduct you down that convolved train of thought. To do so would require way too much time and energy. But that's the point. The moral complexity, or at least the potential moral complexity (i.e. the moral question, (for non-nihilists)) of suicide generally and assisted suicide specifically necessitate at least a moment or two of consideration. But in Me Before You, it's brought to you in the sheep's clothing of a summer rom-dram whose whole raison is the inducing of mindless cathartic crying; and that, for me, was extremely disorienting and unpleasant.

The central thrust of which disorientation and unpleasantness was this: We are supposed to be moved to the same tears by a disability to which we've been moved before (in tonally comparable movies) by cancer and AIDS and tragic accidents. Traynor getting hit by a motorcycle is, without question, a tragic accident. But the result is a spinal cord injury that about 300,000 people are currently living with in the United States.

Not for nothing do I note the movie's strenuous advocacy for human agency, for the sanctity of autonomous choice. "It's his choice," the characters frequently remind each other, about Will's assisted suicide, (which by the way sets up another unpleasant situation, i.e. that Will's choice, whatever it is, becomes the de facto position of the movie on euthanasia). Plus, on the other hand, Will's constantly badgering Louisa about how shitty her choices are. #LiveBoldly, is the film's hashtag, and the tenor of the presentation got me thinking I was supposed to regard the fact that Louisa had stayed in her small British town (and not gone to college, for instance) with more horror and contempt than the fact that Will saw not one reason to stay alive.  

There were also some technical inhibitors which prevented my own cathartic crying, namely that the movie's sappiest and (ostensibly) most heart-rending scenes were all filmed in extreme close-up. Will Traynor is by and large confined to a wheelchair, and Louisa, in moments both tender and anguished, often sits on his lap. Or else she'll snuggle up within inches of Traynor's face when he's supine. The camera, dutifully, is never far behind.  Clarke is constantly on the verge of some very big emotion -- Hilarity! Grievous discomfort! Soul-crushing disappointment! Rabid curiosity! And viewers may have a hard time separating the effort to authenticate all those big feelings with the feelings themselves.

Louisa’s last name in the movie is Clark, by the way, and this makes for something like a neural triple-take when you think for a moment that you’ve witnessed a serious blooper on screen (i.e. Will Traynor has just addressed his scene partner by the actor’s surname!) and then realize that, no duh, it’s the character’s name as well; but then you intuit that Sam Claflin (as Traynor) might be plumbing some inside-jokey emotional depth by communicating with Emilia Clarke even as, on the surface, he’s chiding or flirting with Louisa Clark, because he address her as just “Clark” all the time.

At any rate, I found Emilia Clarke's acting somewhat volcanically over the top. I had the same reaction in 2015’s Terminator Genisys, and at the time, my fear was that maybe she just wasn’t much of an actress. I now wonder whether Clarke hasn’t been driven to overexpression as a means to distance more recent performances from her lustrous, steely Daenerys Targaryen on GoT. Whatever the reason, the upshot is that in Me Before You, we’re confronted with a face that’s never in repose.

Take just for one example when Lou shaves Will's face. It's another one of these clinically intrusive close-ups, and Clarke is smiling with what I'd classify as a bizarre amount of wonderment throughout. It's like she's gazing upon the Christ child.

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Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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