Toni Collette rages through Catherine Hardwicke's cancer weepie Miss You Already like a fire in a chain restaurant. The film around her is good, welcoming fare, the kind that snobs always underestimate. But then Collette, playing a vain patient bereft at losing her hair and her ability to wear 7-inch Louboutins, enters the frame to give an Oscar-caliber performance in a movie that Oscar voters probably will avoid watching until 2019 when they're stuck home with the flu.
Their loss. British comedian Morwenna Banks has written one of the year's best scripts, a bitterly funny tearjerker that sees cancer patients as full people: not just heroes, not just victims, but complicated human beings attempting to stand strong in a world that's turned to quicksand. And Banks recognizes that everyone who loves them is also on shaky ground, in part because the sick can be, well, selfish. (It's hard not to be when every day counts.)
Before her diagnosis, Collette's Milly, an ex–party girl who once shagged a roadie onstage — and then, reader, married him — sucked up all the oxygen in the room. Once she's ill, everyone who loves her is at risk of suffocation, especially childhood BFF Jess (Drew Barrymore), who's so wary of stealing Milly's spotlight that she's afraid to announce her pregnancy. (Jess' husband, Paddy Considine, isn't happy to rank second.)
Most cancer dramas pretend to find real truths in the face of death. Their sad saints go off to the grave embracing religion and family like a tidy parting gift. Miss You Already is slipperier. Milly, the daughter of a shallow actress (Jacqueline Bisset), is terrified of losing her sex appeal. Her mood depends on whether she can find a gorgeous wig or convince her husband to touch her after a double mastectomy. Her needs aren't noble, but they're human. That goofy husband, Kit (Dominic Cooper), was a great mate when times were fun. Suddenly he's off-key, and rather than spend what could be her last months retuning their marriage in therapy, Milly adjusts her life to what matters now, even if that means having a fling with a bartender or pushing away the people who expect anything of her she's not in the mood to give.
The friendship between Milly and Jess is the foundation of the film, which is why it's rotten luck that the usually charming Barrymore comes across like a crumpled washcloth. Her jokes fall flat; her narration is tone-deaf. Delivering her child in the opening scene, Jess cracks, “Ah, childbirth, the most beautiful experience of a woman's life,” a line that wouldn't get a laugh unless Candace Bushnell plied a Sex and the City fan with four skinny margaritas. Even Barrymore's gift for reflecting light off her castmates like a fairytale mirror has switched off. Whenever she's paired in a scene with Collette, she disappears; whenever she's alone, so does our interest.
It's frustrating because Barrymore can do better — and this screenplay deserves the best. Hardwicke clearly has a hard-earned emotional intelligence about the complexity of female friendships, particularly those so intense they dwarf everything around them. They have their own vibrato. Screaming matches end with a smile, while unspoken slights can be silent killers. Milly has two children and a husband, relationships of permanence due to blood and paperwork. But her relationship with Jess is a daily choice, and I became so invested in whether the women would be able to forgive each other's faults that I spent the last 20 minutes blubbering into my scarf.
Yet Hardwicke and Banks recognize that death always happens alone, even with other people in the room. Collette plays Milly like a match, flaring up before going gray and quiet and allowing us the choice to love her or not. Some diseases — like some personality flaws — don't have a cure. Miss You Already prescribes empathy both for those leaving and for those being left behind.
MISS YOU ALREADY | Directed by Catherine Hardwicke | Written by Morwenna Banks | Roadside Attractions and Lions Gate