There’s nothing like a good tear-jerker — and “Me Before You” is nothing like a good tear-jerker.
What could have been a pleasurable two-hanky romance between a plucky working-class girl and a rich quadriplegic gets buried in whimsy and suffocated with a terminal case of the cutesies. Forget art, or even craft: This is the kind of movie that can’t even get its shameless audience-pandering in order.
It doesn’t help that screenwriter Jojo Moyes (adapting her best-selling novel) and director Thea Sharrock (making her big-screen debut) make the heroine of the piece fairly insufferable: Luisa has been written as a greatest-hits collection of two-dimensional female screen characters throughout the decades, from the can-do shopgirls of the 1930s to the manic pixie dream girls of more recent vintage. (Plus, this is the kind of movie that communicates her creative free spirit by having her dress in a kooky parade of bright colors and clashing patterns.)
On top of that, Sharrock has directed Emilia Clarke (“Game of Thrones,” “Terminator Genisys”) to express practically every emotion by touching her earlobes with her dimples. Whether she’s giddily happy or devastated by grief, her mouth stretches as wide as possible in scene after scene after scene.
Luisa runs this gamut of emotions after she’s employed as a caretaker for rich and handsome Will Traynor (Sam Claflin, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay”). Will used to be a London financier who climbed mountains and dove off cliffs and kept the kind of minimal all-white flat where the only color came from a duvet, a surfboard and bar stools that were all the same shade of yellow. But then he got hit by a motorcycle crossing the street and was left mostly paralyzed from the collarbone down.
Stewing in a literal castle with his parents (played by Janet McTeer and Charles Dance), Will sulks about, resisting Luisa’s attempts to engage him with the world. He’s got an actual nurse – Nathan, played by Stephen Peacocke (“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”) – to handle anything that’s actually medical or gross, so Luisa spends days failing to get through to her charge. Until she does, of course, and he melts under her aggressively gamine ways.
It’s only later that Luisa learns that Will has attempted suicide, and that he promised his parents to wait six months before traveling to Switzerland to legally end his life. Can Luisa charm Will into finding life worth living? One of the few areas in which “Me Before You” excels is the way it takes these end-of-life issues seriously and doesn’t chicken out on discussing a serious subject.
That one facet is too little and arrives too late, though. The film’s main problem is that Clarke and Claflin have very little chemistry, and “Me Before You” bends over backwards to make us believe that they’re perfect for each other. It would have been more believable for Luisa to wind up with Nathan, or even with Patrick (Matthew Lewis, the “Harry Potter” series), Luisa’s fitness-minded boyfriend who goes through the movie with “Wrong Guy For Her” over his head in neon.
This is a film that’s oppressively cozy in a TV commercial way: The cinematography (by Remi Adefarasin, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”) calls to mind “Mom Jeans” and every other “SNL” parody of ads aimed at women, while the score alternates between toothless love ballads and Craig Armstrong’s twinkly score, which sounds like the music that plays under the list of side effects in a 60-second spot for prescription medications.
Given the relative scarcity of big-screen love stories involving female protagonists, “Me Before You” seems like a real missed opportunity. Instead, it’s a date-night offering that will make heterosexual men everywhere say, “Next time, I’m picking the movie.”