Could you put your own life on hold to help a friend with the end of hers? That’s the question that shrouds “Our Friend” throughout much of its running time.
Jason Segel stars as a couple’s best friend, Dane, who decides to move in and help out when Nicole (Dakota Johnson) is diagnosed with cancer. He sees how overwhelmed they are and figures he can handle mundane tasks, tend their daughters and make the transition a bit easier.
It’s a magnanimous gesture that shows just how strong some friendships are.
Still, who can do something like that? Because he’s drifting in life, Dane doesn’t feel bound to any place, person or job. He’s needed and he answers the call.
To understand the mindset, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite offers glimpses of the trio (Casey Affleck plays Nicole’s husband, Matt) at different stages in their lives. Dane starts as Nicole’s theater friend, then morphs into Matt’s sounding board. The three do plenty together before her illness becomes the tie that binds.
Matt, an ambitious journalist, often puts work before family, which causes friction. Dane eases the tension, befriends both and fends off snark from outside sources.
When friends question his motives (singer Jake Owen plays a particularly blunt neighbor), Dane shrugs them off; Nicole and Matt ignore the chatter.
Cowperthwaite hints at Dane’s lack of purpose but she never shows Nicole and Matt returning any favors. At times, he’s like hired help.
And that’s where “Our Friend” cracks. Because it’s not an upbeat film, there’s little to celebrate – even Dane’s selflessness. When the final days arrive, they’re almost impossible to watch.
Affleck fares best in the equation. He reacts the way most would, has a fuller life and isn’t just a cog in this wheel. Johnson’s role could have been played by any number of actresses.
Segel, though, does everything he’s asked but “Our Friend” somehow doesn’t wind up as “his” film.
Cowperthwaite borrows bits from other, better end-of-life films (there’s a nod to “Terms of Endearment”) and attempts a back-and-forth time shift that “This Is Us” has perfected.
It’s a noble story of friendship that’s affecting. It’s just not always effective.
The variable that “Our Friend” never finds a way to address is what Dane learned, gained or realized.
His is the voice that’s ever-present but, all too often, never heard.