Daniel Levy’s first post-Schitt’s Creek step — if you don’t count his brief appearance in The Idol — is the feature film Good Grief (now on Netflix), for which, like the Emmy-winning TV series, he serves as writer, director, producer and star. The movie is a slight step away from the hit sitcom, leaning heavier into the “dram” part of “dramedy,” and less into the “edy.” He casts alongside him Ruth Negga and Himesh Patel, who play a trio of besties struggling through scads of relationship drama. Will we laugh, will we cry, will we make it to the end before switching over to Is It Cake? Let’s find out.
GOOD GRIEF: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: It’s Christmas, so, hey, party time. Oliver (Luke Evans) is a big gregarious personality with scads of money that came to him after he wrote a series of teen-oriented novels about a girl detective that became a hit movie franchise, so of course he has an Oscar-nominated musician playing his piano as he stands up and gives a hearty toast to his many, many friends. His husband of 15 years is Marc (Levy), who used to be a painter, but now illustrates Oliver’s books. Does Marc work for his husband or with his husband? We can’t quite answer that, but then again, we probably can answer that – such is the dynamic. But there’s plenty of love between them. Can’t deny that. And like anyone who relishes in being too popular, Oliver has to dash from his own party for a Paris book signing. He gives Marc a kiss and a Christmas card and off he goes. A beat or three later, we hear sirens, then cut to a long shot of Marc running up the block towards a car wreck as he fights police officers, trying to get to his husband.
The funeral is gut-wrenching. Marc gives a speech. Oliver’s sweetheart father (David Bradley) gives a speech. The star of the Victoria Valentine movies gives a speech and speaks on the great and awful tragedy of the fifth and sixth books never being completed, thus leaving movie productions and legions of female teenage fans in the lurch. Everybody mourns in their own way, right? Yes. Of course. Marc chooses to mope; he lost his mother a while back and now his husband is gone, and he laments, “I’m an orphan and a widow.” Thankfully, he has sympathetic ears in Thomas (Patel), his (brief) pre-Oliver lover and now close compadre who struggles mightily to land in a long-term relationship, and Sophie (Negga), a free spirit whose boyfriend unwittingly pushed her away by proposing to her.
A year goes by, and Marc marks the anniversary of Oliver’s death by finally opening that Christmas card, and – well, let’s just say it’s more than just a cheeseball Hallmark sentiment. It sparks a Movie Plot in which Marc takes Thomas and Sophie to Paris to get a little crazy on the dead guy’s dime. Marc doesn’t tell his friends what’s in the card, because, again, this is a Movie Plot. But they have some fun and get in squabbles and open their hearts and learn each other’s secrets and all that, and Marc ends up spending some quality time with a handsome gent named Theo (Arnaud Valois), who seems bent on convincing Marc to pick up the paintbrush again. Making some art might help, right?
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Shades of Spoiler Alert here, even down to some similar parallel thematic developments.
Performance Worth Watching: Negga is a firecracker, because someone needs to spike this movie’s lachrymose punch, at least a little bit. Sophie is a bit thinly written, and is clearly intended to be the comic relief – functional and effective comic relief, mind you – but Negga’s performance suggests a shade or two more than just your typical hot-mess supporting role.
Memorable Dialogue: Marc shows some admirable cinema literacy – and excellent comic timing – when he says, “I want to paint alone in a room overlooking the ocean like some sad lesbian in a period drama.”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: I was relieved to learn that Good Grief is not about LGBTQ+ trauma, but a bit bummed to discover that it’s about garden-variety all-people trauma. It’s a movie about death and loss, and how we muddle through the relative ups and downs of grief, although the downs of grief that Marc must muddle through are especially grievous. The twists in this movie are too often those of a knife. It sucks. Poor guy. It’s no fun being him right now, and it’s kind of no fun watching him exist in a movie, although it’s pretty much impossible not to empathize with his pain – Levy is a strong enough writer and performer to assure our investment in Marc’s plight. It’s hard to watch the guy suffer, and harder still not to at least be moderately invested in his emotional well-being.
And that’s why we find ourselves wading into the film’s weighty earnestness, only to find that it’s not as deep as it could or should be. Levy flirts with ideas about art as catharsis, about how and why we must move on in the wake of death, about secrets we keep from each other, perhaps because we don’t want to admit them to ourselves. The film can be thoughtful, even if its thematic subtext isn’t particularly revelatory or original. Levy wisely edges away from cliches by rendering the narrative less about the revelation of his characters’ secrets, and more about their emotional journeys – or Marc’s at least, as Thomas and Sophie deserve a little more attention to their inner lives, and less about how they function as variations on the protagonist’s pain. And the Theo character is a dud, more plot device than legit human being.
Thankfully, Good Grief is about more than just waiting for the other shoe to drop. But it also tends to be a sad bowl of lukewarm soup in need of, I dunno, what do you put in a big kettle of soup? Some spicy bouillon? (Negga is ripe and ready to enliven the picture, but needs more opportunities to inspire laughs.) You can’t help but feel something for these characters, and the hard, universal truths they’re working through. You also can’t ignore the nagging sense that a little more comedy would do the movie good, that the light-to-heavy rom-com/maudlin drama dynamic is off. Levy’s heart is in the right place, even when his sights are a bit off.
Our Call: Good Grief could be sharper, crisper and funnier, like the script needs another draft. But as it stands, it’s tender and amusing enough to warrant a watch. STREAM IT.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.