It is the thickest part of the season of my discontent. On one side of me there lies a geriatric robot using himself, gallantly, as a human torpedo to keep the future safe for dragons on HBO. On the other side, there is the formerly formidable Vincent D’onofrio delivering a more compelling facsimile of Orson Welles than he did in Ed Wood. I, feeling unhappy that my blazon of filmic revelation had fallen temporarily silent, tried to thread the needle, and so ventured forth into the unknown night that is yet another tale of a chipmunk face, a cancer girl, and a detached black youth (tasked, as ever in Hollywoodland, with keeping it real). I entered hoping to laugh, to cry, or at least to fake it until I made it. I left unchanged, untouched, my memory of what transpired like a koan, written upside down in fine grain during a sandstorm. Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl is ostensibly a serio-comic tearjerker, a product of the superbrain that guided eight episodes of Glee and one episode of The Carrie Diaries into port. I do not mean to slander Mr. Gomez-Rejon, for he has assuredly accomplished more in the way of putting images before the eyes of the public than have I. All the same, this film felt like a half-baked TV leftover, a drooper episode of Gilmore Girls written whilst on quaaludes. It aims neither high, nor low, but for the distinctly average; indeed, it feels as if written by a computer algorithm that churned through Rushmore and The Fault in Our Stars, averaging out the highs and lows, retaining the twee and sappy, and adding a black person. (Perhaps it is already ahead of the output of Wes Anderson in that department).
So what happens here? An “I’m charming because of my fake humility and fraudulent low self-esteem” narrator, the titular chipmunk-faced Me (Thomas Mann, also known as Greg, and not known as the creator of the Magic Mountain) is brow-beaten by his mother (Connie Britton) into spending time with a dying girl (Olivia Cooke, also known as Rachel) for what reason we cannot comprehend. (Mom is apparently a knee-jerk beeotch, dedicated to her son’s unhappiness). In requisite ironic deadpan fashion, Greg and Rachel trade lame jokes, and lame revelations, all the while slowly forming that dread connection known as friendship. Rachel has cancer. Greg makes insipid parodies of Hollywood films, with titles like Death in Tennis and Pooping Tom. He mimics Werner Herzog’s at this point played out monologue about the horrors of the jungle. He hangs out with Earl, who is his silent partner in auteurship and not a friend, but a “coworker.” As Rachel gets sicker, Greg and Earl pretend to be forced to regale her with their cinematic output (is there a connection here?). Soon, a hot girl that Greg likes discovers his secret life as a cineaste, and guilts him into making a movie explicitly for the dying girl. Greg, lame loafer that he is (I know, he is supposedly dragging his feet because he knows his tribute will kill her which, SPOILER, it does) hems, haws, and draws it all out until the last minute. As per usual given algorithmic averages, the film hinges on a scene where Rachel and Greg have a falling out, she wanting to be left alone to quit chemo and die, he wanting her to fight, fight to the end for his sake, all the while they both attempt to squeeze as much liquid out of their faces as they can. (They mostly fail). After this, Greg falls deeper into doldrums (if that is possible) and Rachel disappears from the scene, to be replaced, finally, by Earl (RJ Cyler) the only thing with life that we can see. (Perhaps the sequel will rightfully be titled Fuck Y’all – I’m Earl). The hot girl keeps hounding Greg to finish his movie before Rachel dies, and spurred on, I guess, by his continual demurrals, she asks him to the prom. He accepts, but fakes her out, at the last moment taking the limo curbside at the hospital, invading Rachel’s deathbed, and forcing her to go gently into that good night to the accompaniment of his last masterpiece (scored somehow, as is all of Greg’s life, by Eno). They make up in a way, she goes comatose, eyes wide open, during the credits, and Greg lumbers on into the future, probably making Hollywood films just like this one. (Earl, too cool and embarrassed to really be part of the movie, smokes another cigarette at her wake).
Yes, just like Greg, this movie is a hand lettered love note of insincerity. Greg pretends to have low self-esteem, to be humble and shy, but he is really, like Herzog in his jungle, a seething pit of self-regard, the reflecting mirror being the real death in front of him. Rachel, playing the role of witless helpmate, convinces Greg of his worth (that is, feeds his secretly monstrous ego) and encourages him to apply to Pitt. He gets accepted, and then, after he slips into his funk (triggered, no doubt, by having to make some real art that matters), gets unaccepted, as his grades slip into the funk along with him. His secretly controlling shrew of a mother goes apeshit (masking it brilliantly, just as Greg masks his truth) but no worries; dying girl spends her last moments on earth penning Penn a little death note asking them to take him back, explaining that his lack of effort was her fault, the price paid for friending the doomed. Yes, Greg’s career in sociopathy is capped by this new identity, as an auteur of fluff given weight by the departed soul of another (his film, an avant-garde homage to the dying girl’s pillows, mirrors the climax of Olivier Assayas’s portrait of another failed director salvaging a final project, 1996’s Irma Vep). The only one who sees through this charade (besides your truly, of course) is Earl, the existential hero of the film. (Cyler’s acting fits the reality of the script as no other performance does). Like the Eno score whose ambience gives the film what emotional weight it has, Earl at first seems like mere background, but gradually becomes the substantial center. No more than an observer, buffeted by the winds of chance, Earl acts when and where acting is needed: in the films du Greg; as witness to the narrative of faux suffering played out between Greg and Rachel; and, in a few key moments, as the bearer of reality’s burden (as when he fells Greg with a punch to the gut, an encounter which Greg, typically, describes as “getting into a fight”). Earl has no family other than an older brother who smokes blunts and sits on the porch with his pit bull; he has no motivation except to eat the food others proffer him; he has no anger, and no resentment, toward the pathetic role he has been dealt. Indeed, he silently revels in the naked absurdity of his position, forced to bear witness to the film’s (and by extension all of our) white lies. Earl could have rightfully popped a cap in everyone’s forehead, but he understands they, and we, are not worth the effort. He is merely biding his time, waiting for his own starring moment, which will be years from now, after all these caricatured cuttlefish munchers and pâté eaters have fallen into obscurity. (Is it coincidence that his is the only name enshrined in the title?) At that future moment, Earl will emerge as the true auteur, not of a script as woeful and drained of effort as this, but of the secret film that lies hidden within, the reality of which the likes of Greg, and our dear director, could not bother to imagine. Perhaps in his dying moments, Greg will realize that it was Earl all along – Earl who neutered Greg’s films while making them possible, Earl who pulled the strings to ensure Greg only got into Pitt, Earl who stood tall as the true moose that stomped Greg’s chipmunk face into the ground again and again. As Greg drops his snow globe to the floor in his basement apartment Xanadu, what name will play upon his lips? The name of Earl.