‘Me Before You’ Review: The Tearjerker Has Heart, but ‘Lacks a Stirring Soul’

2.5 stars (out of 4)

Keep the tissues close. The tragic material starts about 90 minutes in and doesn’t let up. By the time the closing credits roll, you’ll be inclined to shake your fist to the sky and rue why life can be so cruel.

Then you’ll dry your eyes. And very soon after, the sobering thought hits you: Uh, yeah, that movie could have been better.

Clarke and Claflin in Me Before You
Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin Alex Bailey

Such is the problem of Me Before You (opening June 3). Rest assured that the glossy drama, which screenwriter Jojo Moyes adapted from her mega-popular 2012 bestseller, has its heart in the right place. But it lacks the stirring soul required for a successfully resonant tearjerker. 

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The fault is not in our stars. In breakout performances, Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) and Sam Claflin (The Hunger Games’ Finnick O’Dair) are magnetic as soulmates doomed by a Dire Medical Prognosis. On the surface, the characters are opposites in mind and body. Clarke’s Louisa is a bubbly 26-year-old so stifled by London’s economy that she still lives at home with her folks. What she lacks in sophisticated polish she makes up for in snazzy, polka-dotted outfits. Clafin’s Will, meanwhile, is a wealthy 31-year-old with a hot-to-trot girlfriend and a dashing, freewheeling lifestyle.

Sam Claflin and Emilia Clarke
Sam Claflin and Emilia Clarke in ‘Me Before You’ Alex Bailey

When “Lou” and Will meet, he is paralyzed from the neck down, two years after being hit by a motorcycle on the street. Though Lou has no experience in the field, his mother hires her to be his caretaker. Not a physical therapist, per se. He already has one. She arrives to the family’s English countryside castle every morning to make him food and fluff his pillows and, above all, be a friend. That is, if he ever decides he wants one.

At first, Will puts up his emotional wall around his literal fortress. No matter how many times Lou smiles while bringing him tea, he wants nothing to do her. The plucky Brit refuses to take his insults, though, and sticks up for herself. And soon, the connection forms. He opens up her horizons by making her watching movies with subtitles; she forces him to take field trips outside his antiseptic bedroom. The warmth between them is palpable.

There’s a formula to their courtship, and anyone well versed in the genre can predict the ensuing complications. Indeed, his affections for Louisa aside, Will swims in despair. He’s made a date with a doctor in Switzerland for an attempted suicide in six months and he’s already consulted his lawyers. Upon hearing this, Lou decides to whatever she can to make him appreciate life and change his mind.

Depression and suicide are not topics to be taken lightly. A great movie would handle these complicated issues with nuanced sensitivity. And this … is not a great movie. So while a fun trip to the horse track might cheer someone up that, say, just lost a puppy, it comes off as overly cloying in this context. The same goes for the tropical Island getaway. (Lou may be well intentioned, but how can she think the sight of palm trees trumps a serious death wish?). The curated Lite FM soundtrack playing in the background only adds to the triteness and manipulation. As if we need to hear an Ed Sheeran ballad to know how to feel.

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The film would have been better served pulling back on the pretty montages and focusing on the characters’ psyches: Will is a good-looking man with the best care money can buy, not to mention supportive parents and a besotted girl tending to his needs. He’s only been in the wheelchair for two years. It’s not entirely clear why he does want to end it all. Maybe Moyes delves into his struggles in her novel, but the crucial piece of the puzzle is missing here. (The supporting characters, including Lou’s pathetic louse of a steady boyfriend, are even more broadly drawn.). The quiet moments matter more than the histrionics. After all, a journey into the long good night shouldn’t be rushed.

With Will a cypher and Lou a one-note joie de vivre in her bumble-bee striped tights, their loving words to each other in the third act don’t quite feel earned. Will can’t physically hold Lou close to his heart. It’s a scientific impossibility. But as the waterworks start, let this question wash over you: Are you crying because you’re truly involved in the plight of these characters or just because a gorgeous dude is deteriorating in front of you? 

Or perhaps you won’t cry at all because the movie isn’t worthy of your tears. And, sigh, that is the saddest realization of them all.

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