Romantic comedies are powered by farcical set pieces like missed connections, mistaken identities and mix-ups that lead to happy-ending fantasies. (They’re all modeled on Shakespeare, in the end.) Those sorts of moments do abound in “Good Grief,” which features pretty urbanites in pretty places learning lessons about friendship, life and love, just like a rom-com would. But to the immense credit of the movie’s writer, director and star Daniel Levy (of “Schitt’s Creek”), this is a very different kind of movie — and a much better one.
That’s not to say “Good Grief” isn’t funny, because often it is. But it’s as if the familiar madcap beats have been wrapped around a drama, and the result is somehow light-handed yet deft and authentic in its treatment of grief’s long tail. The man at its center, Marc (Levy), is an artist living in London whose husband, Oliver (Luke Evans), dies in a car accident, leaving behind a lot of loose ends, some of them hidden from his loved ones. Marc tries to navigate the first year of life as a stunned widower with the help of his friends Sophie (Ruth Negga) and Thomas (Himesh Patel). They’re all creative people — Sophie designs costumes for movies, Thomas works at a gallery — and all in their late 30s, with a long history behind them. Each also harbors long-simmering hurts of their own, and when the three spend a weekend in Paris together, things come to a head.
This is the sort of film you want to live inside, with beautiful furnishings, glowing light and an affluent coziness that verges on Nancy Meyers territory. Oliver was the author of a Potter-esque young adult book series that spawned a successful film franchise, so he leaves Marc comfortably well-off, with a gorgeous house into which Thomas simply moves to keep his friend company. Without having to grapple with how Marc will pay his bills — a familiar complication of sudden loss for many people — “Good Grief” is freed to focus on more existential and emotional dimensions. When you’ve entwined your life with someone else’s, what happens when they’re gone? When love evaporates without warning, how can you keep living?
The answers are complex, because everyone experiences and processes various stages of grief differently. Feelings zig and zag. We try things to drown out the pain, feeling better one day and horrid the next. Nothing moves predictably. Nobody can tell you how to fix it, because it can’t be fixed, only lived through.
Levy’s script navigates all of this complexity nimbly, never over-explaining what Marc is going through. Instead “Good Grief” does that rare, beautiful thing: It trusts the audience to pay attention. It’s restrained in revealing the details of Marc and Oliver’s marriage — joys, sorrows, compromises, conflicts — as well as the back story of the group’s friendship. There are no real twists, and every time it seemed the movie was about to take the easy way out, it didn’t. Thank goodness.
How well “Good Grief” works for you may depend on your tolerance for watching long conversations among friends about pain, regrets and loss. Mostly I think it’s effective; a few times, it sags, losing its rhythm briefly in abstractions. But it always returns, generating emotion without diving into a treacly pit of cloying mush. The credit lies with the actors: Negga’s vivacity, Patel’s aching sincerity and Levy’s uncanny talent for great line readings make these people feel instantly recognizable, their chemistry legible as complicated love.
Late in the film, Marc admits that when his mother died, he “opted out” of the pain by distracting himself, and now he’s doing the same again. Other characters opt out of their pain by drowning it or denying it or simply refusing to acknowledge it. Yet the pain that accompanies loss sticks around like a hollow spot in your chest, changing shape but never disappearing. In most rom-coms, conflicts tend to resolve easily, all a product of misunderstanding. In “Good Grief,” resolution is not the point. The idea is to keep on loving, to find new life.
Rated R for tragedy, and for 30-somethings behaving like hot messes. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. Watch on Netflix.