Anyone who has ever attempted to make a satisfying go of this contrary thing called life will acknowledge that getting it right poses some considerable challenges indeed.
It isn’t enough to simply build yourself a lovely house, surround it with a white picket fence, fill it with a partner or friends, some kids or dogs and cats and let the good times roll.
You need to feel as if the acquisition of all these things is worth the time and the effort, that their continued presence in your life comes with some sort of existentially-pleasing reason to be.
This isn’t always the case of course and people do their best to find a way to cope with that disconnect … or they don’t, as Pascal Chaumeil’s A Long Way Down, based on Nick Hornby’s 2005 novel of the same name, makes clear when four quite different people find themselves gathered on a rain-soaked New Year’s Eve atop a high rise tower looking to end it all.
Expecting to be alone when they ended their lives, they are surprised to not only find they have company but that they share more in common than might otherwise be apparent.
Events contrive to keep the unlikely new friends from scattering to the four winds that fateful evening, and somewhat reluctantly but without any better options on the table, they sign a pact – somewhat humorously on the back of one of their suicide notes – to stay the hand of self-execution till at least Valentine’s Day when presumably they will see if things have improved or are as dire as ever.
Bound together by fate are droll, cranky Martin Sharp (Pierce Brosnan), a onetime successful morning TV show host with a loving wife and family who found it all blown to oblivion when he has a dalliance with a woman who turns out to be underage; he has the most reason of anyone to finish his life and, naturally enough is the first onto the roof.
He is soon joined, to his profound irritation, by Maureen Thompson (Toni Collette in a masterfully nuanced performance), a loving mother to an adult son with cerebral palsy who though desperately devoted to him, can no longer deal with the vast gulf between what her life is and what she sees it could be.
Hers is perhaps the most touching story, as she makes it tearfully clear later in the film that she wasn’t killing herself because of her son, whom she makes quite plainly she adores, but because she couldn’t find a way to keep all the loss, the pain inside her tidy, carefully-controlled boundaries.
Jess (Imogen Poots), the third member of the group, is by contrast someone who has no issues at all with boundaries, carefully-controlled or otherwise.
A quip-spinning force of fast-talking nature, she deflects any and all pain caused by the still unexplained disappearance of her sister Jennifer two years before, with witty, pithy observations and socially-inappropriate observations designed to keep others at bay even as she circles around, all nervous energy and jangly emotions, as the centre of a very sad party indeed.
Despite all the “go away, stay away” messages she sends to everyone in her life including her long-suffering eminent politician father (Sam Neill), who clearly wishes he could be closer to his daughter than he currently is, she somehow bonds with J. J. Maguire (Aaron Paul), who gives an inoperable brain cancer as his reason for suicide, a later-proved false declaration that masks the fact he is simply overwhelmed by the business of living (something he finds embarrassingly inadequate as a reason to prematurely finish off his life).
Together these four people, hitherto separated by age and vastly different life experiences that mean they would likely have never met each other, decide to not only bind themselves in the anti-suicide pact, an idea advocated by Jess unsurprisingly, but counter media reports of their accidentally joint, unsuccessful suicide bids – Jess’s drug-addicted ex-boyfriend, the reason for her extreme emotional stress on the night, leaks their story – with a joint story about seeing a nude Matt Damon-looking angel on he rooftop of the tower.
It’s an odd decision on the face of it, only making some sense because of Martin’s past media profile and Jess’s father’s senior role in the country’s opposition party, that backfires rather spectacularly, forcing them to flee the country for a time as they realise that not everything can be solved with fame, fortune and a fanciful, quickly-concocted story.
This messy attempt to gain something from their collective pain is emblematic of a film that isn’t quite sure if it’s a flippant, dark humour-laced ode to laughing it all off lest you cry, or a serious, gut-wrenching dissertation on how soul-destroyingly wearing life can be.
A Long Way Down sits somewhat awkwardly between these two thematic points, with Martin and Jess taking the light, jocular quips masking real pain route, while Maureen, who turns out to the emotional heart and soul of the group, despite her reticence to making anything much of anything, and J. J. take the latter with powerful performances in their key scenes.
For all that, though, A Long Way Down somehow manages to emerge as a charming though slight film, ultimately focusing on the fact that life can still surprise and delight you even when you have pretty much concluded it is capable of nothing of the sort.
Some might say it’s a glib message but in the hands of these four fine actors who bring their characters to life in recognisable, emotionally-connective ways, it is given some reasonable heft as we see four people with nothing much left to live for suddenly discover they have found something infinitely precious in their unexpected friendships with each other.
In its slight but meaningful way, A Long Way Down doesn’t belabour this point, choosing the route of matter-of-fact understatement, with the exception of the hyperactive, super-ebullient Jess, and an ending, which while happy, isn’t mawkish or overly sentimental.
It may not be the be-all and end-all discussion on suicide and what drives people to this most final of solutions, but then it never really sets out to be.
By combining whimsy, real characters whose pain makes sense even if some of their actions do not, a willingness to talk about real, palpable existential pain in amongst the jokes, and a slowly meandering plot that gives each person their turn in the spotlight but emphasises how connected they know all are, A Long Way Down does however make the point, in its own charming way, that life, though difficult and overwhelmingly demanding at times, may hold the ability to surprise you yet.