People grieve the loss of a loved one differently, but there is little comfort to be found when a parent loses a child — which is why we see so many movies about this bleak subject (“The Changeling,” “Sophie’s Choice,” “The Lovely Bones,” to name a few). “The Greatest” is the latest entry in the genre, and unfortunately, it fits snugly into some pretty well-worn grooves
When Alan and Grace Brewer’s (Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon) 18-year-old son Bennett (Aaron Johnson) is killed in a car crash, they’re left to grieve along with their younger teenage son Ryan (Johnny Simmons). Bennett was a terrific kid — kind, smart, funny — and his death puts a chasm between the inconsolable Grace, who relentlessly pursues details about the last minutes of her son’s life, and Alan, who’s trying to stifle the pain and keep it together for his family. Meanwhile, Ryan is generally ignored and left to suffer alone while struggling with a vague drug problem.
Not long after his death, Bennett’s girlfriend, Rose (Carey Mulligan), shows up at the Brewer’s pristine home to announce that she’s three months’ pregnant with nowhere to go. As much as they adored their son, the only thing Alan and Grace knew about Rose was that she was in the car when Bennett was killed, escaping with just a broken arm. We know from the opening scenes, however, that the high-school classmates had recently fallen deeply in love. Alan and Grace are both flabbergasted, but Grace responds with a hostility that only worsens when Alan welcomes Rose into their home for the duration of her pregnancy.
Although Mulligan is adorable (she seems to be picking up where Katie Holmes’ career left off), her character is the film’s weakest point. Through flashbacks of her rosy courtship with Bennett, we learn that Rose is an intelligent, loving, self-assured teen. But when she’s left with a dead boyfriend and an illegitimate child she can’t support, she stays that way — never once seeming scared, concerned about her education, worried about money or angry at the hand life dealt her. Her unnatural confidence would be disturbing if Rose were a real teenage girl, but in Shana Feste’s script (she also directed), Rose is more of an idea, an adorable plot device that perpetuates the real story — Grace and Alan’s crumbling marriage.
Lucky for us, Feste excels when it comes to the couple’s complex relationship, and she uses Brosnan and Sarandon’s talents wisely, particularly in the quiet moments between the fighting. When we first meet the couple, Alan is sitting in bed, nervously holding an alarm clock while his wife sleeps beside him. He’s waiting for the alarm to sound so he can quickly comfort her during that horrible moment when she opens her eyes and remembers, once again, that her son is dead. This dialogue-free moment, which we assume is now routine, is truly painful.
Sarandon is no stranger to the grieving mother roles (“Lorenzo’s Oil,” “Moonlight Mile”), but this is the first time she’s created one that is so unlikable. Not that she’s given many options in the script with Grace’s cruel withholding of compassion for Rose and the selfish accusations she hurls at her obviously burdened husband. (Alan’s patience with her is certainly longer than ours.) But Brosnan, appearing in his second grieving father role this year (the first, “Remember Me”) is the emotional heart of the film, and the moments of joy he finds with Rose are welcome relief.
This kind of subject matter may be grim, but it can be rewarding if the filmmaker takes us someplace unexpected, perhaps illuminating a new aspect of the human condition. Otherwise, it’s just a sad story that leaves us steeped in an unenlightened cloud of melancholy. Although Feste delivers a well-acted, competently directed film with “The Greatest,” it ultimately lacks the originality that could lift it out of the fog.