One accepts a certain number of lies as the price of admission for most mainstream romance movies. More than that, the majority of the tissue-wadding saps in the audience are likely glad for those dishonesties, whether or not they themselves are in a relationship and recognize the duplicity. Most widely palatable love stories understandably elide the tepid but irresistible normalcy of monogamous existence and, of course, the obviously discouraging realities of failed relationships, instead stressing only swooning high points and glamorously tragic lows. As fantasies go, they’re safe, comforting, and make you believe Cupid’s arrow will land in the center of that giant popcorn bucket you’re splitting with your best girlfriend, every time.
Me Before You is some kind of twisted reversal of those expectations, punking its impressionable audience into believing the lie and then punishing them for their foolishness. Emilia Clarke stars as Louisa Clark, an aspiring Manic Pixie Dream Girl who, after losing her job as the bright spot in a lot of senior citizens’ lives down at the corner coffee shop, goes in search of employment at the mossy, 13-acre castle at the heart of her otherwise idyllic British country town. Despite having no documented caretaking experience, she lands a job serving as psychological nursemaid to Will Traynor (Sam Claflin), who was apparently once London’s answer to Patrick Bateman until he was partially paralyzed in a traffic accident. Now his parents have him sequestered away in a refurbished horse stable, where now and again he manages to get a few words around the massive gob of self-pity lodged in his throat.
Louisa, being the type of girl who wears Blind Melon “Bee Girl” stockings and shoes made out of nursery-room wallpaper, refuses to let Will resist her song and dance, and even though in Will’s former life he no doubt inspired a few middle managers to leap from their 32nd-story office windows, eventually she breaks down his defenses. She even gets him to subject her to a dour foreign film. But despite Louisa’s Disney-sidekick advances in thawing him out, Will persists in carrying the torch for the skirt-chasing GQ poster boy he used to be and clearly believes being in a wheelchair precludes him from remaining. As Louisa finds out early on, Will has a date with a euthanasia specialist in Switzerland, a plan one of his two parents monstrously rationalizes.
Advocates for people living with disabilities have spoken out against the film—as if they had any other alternative—for its apparent argument that it would be better to not live life at all than subject someone you love to your physical deficiencies, the “someone you love” in Will’s case being himself. But despite all evidence on display, including a rapturous one-sheet that bends over backward to disguise the male lead’s condition, Me Before You clearly frames Will’s decision as selfish, shortsighted, and tragically un-heroic. No one is in danger of leaving a screening saying: “Well, all things considered, he made the right move.” The film works marginally better if one looks at it as a clumsy metaphor for RuPaul’s maxim, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love someone else?” But even then, it only scratches the surface of how an individual’s self-loathing poisons the relationships of everyone else around them, reducing its gravitas to book-of-the-month territory.