I’ve said in the past that I’m not a fan of rambling humor. When I see someone stuck in an awkward conversation, repeatedly putting their foot in their mouth, talking about anything and everything in some vain attempt at getting things back on track, it doesn’t make me laugh. It just makes me feel like I’m wasting time. No, I much prefer my comedy to be like a heat-seeking missile: Fast, precise, and devastating.
So what do I do with a film like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which seems to whiplash between the two methods?
The “Me” of the title is Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), a high school senior who’s mastered the art of being invisible. With strategic use of canned phrases, vague gestures, and bland jokes, Greg has successfully stayed on decent terms with every clique without actually being part of any one group. No friends, no enemies, no drama. He’s a guy perfectly happy to be alone, with no one to confirm or deny just how ugly and worthless he thinks he is.
Why would Greg set up his life in such a way? Well, one character speculates that it may have something to do with his home life. His dad (a grossly underutilized Nick Offerman) is a tenured sociology professor, so he can get away with lounging at home in his bathrobe. Guy just sits around watching bad foreign movies, talking with his cats, eating foreign dishes that look like something a toilet threw up. As for Greg’s mom (Connie Britton), she’s a relentlessly nagging busybody who’s going to get people whatever she thinks they need whether they want it or not. No wonder Greg has so many issues, his parents’ heads are so far up their own asses.
The “Earl” of the title is played by RJ Cyler. He and Greg have known each other since kindergarten, but Greg won’t call Earl his friend or think that Earl is his friend or even admit that he has any friends. Greg would prefer to call Earl a coworker, since they’ve spent the past few years making godawful parody movies with no budget or talent. No one seems to have any idea why they’d make 42 of those suckers and counting, since Greg is very adamant that nobody else ever watch them.
As for Earl himself, I gotta say I could never really get a handle on him. Guy doesn’t talk very much, and his few lines of dialogue mostly center around white girls and “them titties.” There are a few moments when he seems to grow some agency and personality, but never to the point where I could get a clear picture of who he was or what he was about.
The supporting cast also includes such thinly-veiled plot devices as a cartoonish goth kid (Matt Bennett), a faux-Rastafarian dope fiend (Masam Holden), and a pretty girl (Katherine C. Hughes) whose only distinguishing feature is in the dozen stop-motion animated clips depicting her as a moose that stomps all over a squirrel representing Greg.
You may already have clued in on the big problem here. To start with, when the characters aren’t complete nonentities, they’re over-the-top exaggerations who can’t possibly be taken seriously. This in addition to the film’s prolific use of title cards, voice-overs, and clips of the random weird-ass movies made by Earl and Greg. I haven’t even gotten started on the bizarre running jokes, which include going catatonic to stop annoying conversations and the use of ordinary throw pillows as sex objects.
It’s all very awkward and weird and quirky. And that would be fine, if the film took it a step further and translated that into something charming or funny. But because it doesn’t go that far, we’re left with so many rambling and endless attempts at comedy that only look painful and forced.
It’s borderline impossible to take this film seriously as a character drama because the characters and the drama are both so clearly fake. And I couldn’t enjoy the film as a comedy, because the jokes were just one awkwardly tin-eared bomb after another, each one going on for far too long.
But then we get to the “Dying Girl” of the title.
Rachel (Olivia Cooke) is a classmate who’s just been diagnosed with acute leukemia. Things start out painfully awkward as usual in this picture, as Rachel’s mom (Molly Shannon) is a single alcoholic who desperately needs to get laid. But she’s friends with Greg’s mom, so the two of them arrange for Greg to come over and try to cheer up Rachel. Not that either of the kids want that, mind you, but just so the two mothers can feel like they’re doing something.
Anyway, neither of the kids really want to be social at first. They’re not having a good time, and I sure as hell wasn’t either. Then the two of them start to get close in spite of each other, and Greg’s inconspicuous nature starts to slip, and everybody keeps on acting like their random and annoying selves so who gives a shit?
But then Rachel starts her treatment. And at roughly the halfway point in the movie, that’s when everything finally started coming together.
In the wake of so much tragedy and hardship, faced with so much uncertainty and trouble, the characters finally start acting like actual human beings. Somehow, the writing and direction overcame so much stupidly worthless inertia and finally got me to give a fuck. When the characters start talking about regret, anger, death, personal attachment, fear of what the future brings, and other such related issues, the movie is remarkably on point.
A fine example comes roughly an hour in, when Greg and Rachel get into a shouting match. And it’s presented as one long still shot. No score. No cuts. No camera movements. Just five solid minutes of these two characters tearing each other to pieces and baring their souls for the camera with nothing to distract our attention. That is some devastating shit.
Even the humor benefits from these darker moments. In those times when Rachel is feeling weak and sick and ugly, wrecked by one hospital treatment after another, Greg comes in with his offbeat sensibility and his random observations. That’s when all the random attempts at humor finally have a point, because it’s exactly when comic relief is most badly needed. And when the relief comes, it’s cathartic and funny and heartbreaking all at once.
Regarding the direction, I can’t tell if relative newcomer Alfonso Gomez-Rejon is an idiot or a genius. Way too much of the movie seems like it’s trying too hard, and that extends to the visuals. There are way too many shots, for example, in which the camera turns on its side for no apparent reason. It just looks goofy and off-kilter for the sake of it without being novel or interesting or funny. But then I remember that one-shot argument I was talking about earlier, and I think “you magnificent bastard.”
The cast is a similar case in point. Just when it seems like the director can’t coax a decent performance or a good laugh out of anyone, along comes a moment that lands like a punch to the gut. Thomas Mann and Olivia Cooke are both fine cases in point, but Jon Bernthal also deserves a mention. Guy usually gets typecast as a scary motherfucker (see: his upcoming turn as The Punisher for Marvel, his part in “The Walking Dead”, or any of his roles for David Ayer), so it was a delight to see Bernthal show more range as a laid-back history teacher.
I had a very difficult time watching Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Way too much of the film was contrived of self-referential bullshit that tried to be funny but only ended up being awkward and pointless. It was a drag getting through those scenes, but that didn’t take away from the moments that beat my heart to a pulp. In those times when this movie is on point, it’s dramatic and funny and profound and emotionally raw.
If you’re a fan of rambling and awkward humor, I’m sure you’ll get more out of this than I did. Go see it. If you were one of those people who absolutely loved The Fault in Our Stars with an undying passion, this is a movie with a lot of similar themes and it will push a lot of similar buttons. Go see it. Everyone else can wait for a rental or skip it entirely.