In many cases there's no sound defense for works of fiction that make millions weep. If there were, "The Bridges of Madison County" and "Miss Saigon" would be, in some way, defensible.
This brings us to "Me Before You," written by ex-journalist Jojo Moyes. Moyes came to her 2012 romance between a wealthy, dashing quadriplegic and his maniacally upbeat caregiver with a confident, reasonably witty prose style. In England especially, the book turned into a monster of lucrative pathos.
Now we have the film version, adapted and streamlined by Moyes and directed by stage veteran Thea Sharrock. It stars Emilia Clarke as Louisa “Lou” Clark, provincial English country girl hired on a six-month contract by the richest family in town to care for the recently paralyzed Will Traynor, played by Sam Claflin.
When Lou learns of Will's plans to end it all, she doubles down to make him realize his life is not over simply because it's not what it was. Meantime sheltered, blinkered Lou, who’s dating the most obviously ill-suited boyfriend since the heyday of “Bridget Jones's Diary,” learns so much from Will: How to enjoy a foreign language film, for example. And what she's missed by never scuba diving off the coast of Mauritius. And what love really means.
Various disability support groups have hated this thing from the first, long before there was a movie version. (Or a sequel; Moyes followed up "Me Before You" with "After You"). Because Traynor has decided, at story's outset, to commit suicide in a posh facility in Switzerland at the end of his six-month trial, the narrative is perceived by many to be a snuff romance novel. It is at that, I suppose.
More critically to the movie's overall resistibility: There's a thin, crucial line in stories such as these, and with protagonists such as Lou, between life-affirming positivity and sociopathic exuberance. Clarke is seriously delightful on talk shows, sharp and funny. On "Game of Thrones," in case you hadn't heard, she has become a phenom as Daenerys Targaryen, Khaleesi of the Dothraki, Mother of Dragons, the hostess with the mostest on the ball. The prospect of playing someone like Lou, who doesn't deal with dragons or rape or nudity, must've been mighty appealing to Clarke. She's more than actress enough to handle a role requiring both comic and dramatic chops.
So what happened? In "Me Before You," Clarke's Lou zooms straight past adorable into the land of needy and pushy and enough, already. As Lou and Will warm to each other's company, the side characters tactfully recede to the background: Lou's jolly working-class parents (Brendan Coyle and Samantha Spiro); Will's imperious but empathetic mother and father (Janet McTeer and Charles Dance); the strapping physical therapist (Stephen Peacocke) aiding Will: They're all there for emotional support and conflicting bits of advice. The story belongs to Clarke and Claflin, and it plays like "Pretty Woman" one scene, "Whose Life Is It Anyway?" the next.
Even if you question what "Me Before You" says about life as a quadriplegic (i.e., it's no life at all), the movie could've made its argument more persuasively. Clarke has loads of talent, but in "Me Before You" she's undermined by director Sharrock's technique, and an endless slew of overeager reaction shots (She's clumsy! She's twinkling!) exacerbated by editor John Wilson. The romance remains a thing of cinematic emoticons.
Maybe it'll draw a huge audience, but I doubt it. The movie has many more obstacles to hurdle than the book did, chiefly — and surprisingly — a leading actress of considerable natural charm, here inflated to the point of giving the phrase "charm offensive" another meaning entirely.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune Newspapers critic.
‘Me Before You’
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic elements and some suggestive material
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Playing: In general release