An inept trifle, A Long Way Down reduces Nick Hornby’s novel of the same name to a series of smug self-help gestures. Director Pascal Chaumeil and screenwriter Jack Thorne plop us right into the middle of the inciting incident, in which a ruined talk show host, Martin (Pierce Brosnan), decides to jump off the top of a tall, snowy building on New Year’s Eve, only to be thwarted by the appearance of three other would-be suicide casualties: a mousy, naïve single mother, Maureen (Toni Collette, playing her second depressed Hornby character, after her turn in Chris and Paul Weitz’s adaptation of About a Boy); an ostentatiously edgy party girl, Jess (Imogen Poots); and a mopey failed musician, JJ (Aaron Paul), who dubiously claims to be dying of brain cancer. Everyone gets to talking, and, at Jess’s behest, the crew decides to put off their respective deaths until the next big mass-suicide holiday, Valentine’s Day.
The film never really recovers from these off-putting, emotionally haphazard moments. By inadvertently embracing the characters’ affectations of ironic detachment, Chaumeil commits to an error of tone that’s easy to slip into when adapting Hornby’s work. The author’s characters are awfully difficult to like, as they’re usually hyper-verbal failed-artist types who wield their considerable intelligence as an obnoxious rationalization of their failures, which serves to distance them from the rest of society at large. This barbed assumption of superiority is a defense mechanism, of course, which underlines a vulnerability that Hornby deftly satirizes without succumbing to authorial judgment. (As in the novels of Roddy Doyle, a palpable relief courses through Hornby’s work, and one feels his gratitude for having managed to avoid the creative fugue state that often stymies his heroes.)
The film, however, loses Hornby’s wry humanist delicacy. All we see are the characters’ shrill outer shells as they embark on a series of crudely staged misadventures, their inner lives squandered by a variety of oddly uneven editing decisions that appear to leave half the film’s plot off screen. The actors don’t sentimentalize their roles, exactly, but they don’t do much of anything else either; they’ve clearly been cast as shorthand in the hopes that we bring our fond memories of their superior past work to this film. The exception is Poots, who relies on a variety of irritating physical ticks that initially scan as the gestures of a daughter of a big-shot politician (Sam Neill) who’s acting out in all the traditional troubled-rich-kid fashions. But there’s no differentiation in Jess’s physicality as she evolves over the course of the film, and so you come to assume that the character’s mannerisms are actually the actor’s.
Populated by ciphers, A Long Way Down succumbs to ghoulishness. There’s something inherently gross about a narrative that treats suicide as just another ready-made obstacle for a coming-of-age yuppie-redemption tale. In this film, people are basically a vacation and a decent lay away from jumping right back into the saddle of their lives. Chaumeil appears to believe that a suicidal state is merely self-pity gussied up. (By contrast, the suicide attempt in About a Boy had real weight, and informed even the film’s lighter moments with a mortal gravity; the comedy complemented, and heightened, the film’s emotional stakes.) Chaumeil’s listless, incoherent direction may ultimately steer you into the uncomfortably mercenary position of eagerly anticipating the characters’ demise, so as to curtail the tediously insincere sincerity.