A Long Way Down has an opening worthy of a good one-act comedy. As Pierce Brosnan narrates, we see him go to the top of a tall building in London in order to throw himself off. He has his reasons. But before he can take the leap, a middle-aged single mother (Toni Collette) also shows up, planning to do the same. And then a teenage girl (Imogen Poots) arrives, and then a young man (Aaron Paul).
They didn’t realize they had picked the most popular day — New Year’s Eve — and the most popular place in town to kill themselves. So the four make a pact not to commit suicide until at least Valentine’s Day, and the movie takes place over those next six weeks.
Based on the Nick Hornby novel, A Long Way Down has two challenges that it pretty much hurdles, though sometimes with some strain. The first challenge is tonal, to make a comedy about suicide that stays reasonably funny without turning into a distasteful farce or glossing over the characters’ suffering. The second is narrative. After the flashy opening, how do you keep up the energy, as well as the chemistry? And how do you find opportunities to get those four disparate characters together?
A Long Way Down is neatly structured in four sections, each surrounding a single character, though each shows its central character interacting with the other three.
Martin (Brosnan) is a former TV personality who lost his career after he had sex with a 15-year-old girl. (He thought she was 25.) He’s tired of living with humiliation. As for the others, Maureen (Collette), the sole caretaker of for her disabled son, is just sad and lonely. And Jess (Poots) has suffered romantic disappointment.
The reasons motivating the suicidal impulses of JJ (Aaron Paul) are more vague. The movie suggests that he has a mental illness, perhaps a chemical depression, but the script gives the actor nothing to work with along that line. All we see is a fellow who is frustrated and melancholic, something Paul (Breaking Bad) knows how to play with aching precision.
As Martin is a notorious figure, the quartet’s non-suicide pact gets leaked to the press, which puts the four into the same boat, needing to strategize and present a single face to the public. Here was an opportunity for the movie to go in an amusing social-satire direction, but it holds back and uses the characters’ tabloid fame as little more than a plot device — satisfying enough for a laugh or two, but restrained.
As British comedy sometimes will, A Long Way Down has an occasional attack of the cutes, but the actors’ commitment keeps the movie on the plus side. I enjoyed the velocity of Poots’ assault on every line, as well as Paul’s sensitivity — that vibe he has of being a good guy. I enjoyed Toni Collette less, simply because she’s saddled with the most boring character, but her pain is affecting.
Best of all, Brosnan takes a fellow who could have been a joke and gives him complexity — a light side, a dark side, a public face and inner rage, a weird mix of cynicism and generous impulse.
Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collette, Imogen Poots, Aaron Paul.
Director: Pascal Chaumeil.
Screenwriter: Jack Thorne. Based on the novel by Nick Hornby.
A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 96 minutes. Vulgar language. In Miami-Dade only: Cosford.