‘The Greatest’ just a TV-movie tear-jerker

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, April 8, 2010 7:45pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Last year’s little-known Oscar nominee for best actress, Carey Mulligan, gives another impressively intelligent performance in “The Greatest,” a low-budget weepie with some big stars on board.

The movie begins with lovemaking and a death. Two new high-school graduates, Bennett (Aaron Johnson) and Rose (Mulligan), share an intimate moment — their first, we infer — before a car accident changes the mood. Bennett is killed, but Rose survives.

Bennett’s parents, played by Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon, are devastated by the death of their favored son. Younger boy Ryan (Johnny Simmons, from “Hotel for Dogs”) is long accustomed to standing in his brother’s shadow and the loss only increases his sense of inadequacy.

Three months after the accident, with nerves still raw on all sides (and the other driver in the accident, played by Michael Shannon, still in a coma), Rose arrives to tell Bennett’s parents about an urgent situation she is in, one that will require her to build a relationship with these two grown-ups she really doesn’t know.

The emotional ups and downs that follow are strenuously navigated in the script by Shana Feste (she also directed), although one begins to suspect that these big scenes exist mostly to allow actors to get a workout.

In particular, Pierce Brosnan (also the film’s producer) continues his quest to go beyond his James Bond mantle — quite a successful quest thus far — by breaking down in tears every 10 minutes or so.

The idea is sound; it is affecting to watch Brosnan fall apart, largely because we’re so used to seeing this actor be a suave, in-control guy. His character is a math professor who exists most comfortably in the cold, logical arena of numbers, and it takes him a while to give in to his feelings. (The movie doesn’t seem to be aware that this plot arc is as mathematical as his diagrams.)

Sarandon has less to work with, as her character is saddled with an obsession about what her son’s last words might have been. Unfortunately, the only person who knows is in a coma; it’s not giving anything away to say that Michael Shannon (also seen this week in “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done”) wakes up in time to have one strong scene.

Carey Mulligan doesn’t own this movie the way she owned “An Education,” but once again she comes across as almost freakishly mature and sane. Almost too sane for the circumstances, at times.

If “The Greatest” had more life than the average 1970s TV-movie, it might be a better setting for its actors, who are obviously up to the emotional demands. It succeeds at applying pressure to the tear ducts, but not a lot more than that.

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