Magazine article Variety

'Dying' Is Laughing Matter

Magazine article Variety

'Dying' Is Laughing Matter

Article excerpt

'Dying' Is Laughing Matter

Anyone who buys a ticket to a film called "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" goes in fully expecting to cry. It's sort of a given. The surprise, then, is the laughter: the near-constant stream of wise, insightful jokes that make it so easy to cozy up to characters dealing with a tough emotional situation. The story of a high-school senior forced to befriend a classmate who has just been diagnosed with leukemia, and the sincere, nonsexual connection that forms as a result, this rousing adaptation of Jesse Andrews' novel is destined not only to connect with young audiences in a big way, but also to endure as a touchstone for its generation. Fox Searchlight acquired the film at Sundance.

After landing a spot on the 2012 Black List, the film went to director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who has worked as a personal assistant to Martin Scorsese, shot second unit footage on such films as "Babel" and "Argo," and oversaw 20 episodes of "Glee" and "American Horror Story" for producer Ryan Murphy. Despite all that experience, there's nothing jaded about his approach here, which balances the new-toy giddiness of a first-timer (this is actually his second feature) with the wisdom of restraint in key areas. As such, he pushes the envelope with his dynamic camerawork and framing, but pulls back where others might have gone heavy, downplaying the sentimentality and music (from Brian Eno).

Premiering to a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival, "Me and Earl" is the kind of movie that gives the Utah-based sprocket opera its sterling reputation among budding cinéphiles - those who associate Sundance with films that defy formulas, take risks and resonate on a deeper level than the studio-made stuff they grew up on. Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) is just the type of teenager who appreciates such movies. Maybe that's why he struggles with the best way to narrate it. His isn't the first "I'm with cancer" story to come along in recent years, although this one doesn't want to jerk tears. Rather, Gomez-Rejon and Andrews are determined to earn them - and they do, by making us care about the characters, starting with Greg.

He's a familiar enough guy, played by a normal-looking actor with all the awkwardness we feel in high school. Greg's coping mechanism is to make superficial friendships with the different social cliques in school. He's good at telling people what they want to hear, but not so great at real human interaction, as evidenced by the fact that he refers to his best friend, Earl (RJ Cyler), as his "coworker." The duo spend hours together everyday studying and making short-film parodies of classic movies, most of which even dedicated film lovers don't discover until college. (With titles like "A Sockwork Orange" and "Pooping Tom," they're all terrible, but that's sort of the joke.)

As hobbies go, such amateur filmmaking is designed to spare Greg the hassle of actually having to interact with his peers. He's especially terrified of girls, which makes the request from his mother (Connie Britton) to visit Rachel (Olivia Cooke) a particularly challenging one. Since the movie is committed to approaching this task with as much humor as possible, Gomez-Rejon casts Molly Shannon as Rachel's mom, who surely would have reminded underage Greg of "The Graduate's" Mrs. Robinson, if only he had ventured out a bit further than the Criterion Collection (which gets primo placement throughout).

Rachel doesn't have any more interest in receiving pity than Greg does in doling it out, which explains how the two kids, who would never be friends under normal circumstances, manage to shift the focus to other things. …

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