How a previously unheralded or underappreciated actor follows up a marvelous performance is often the true test of their abilities. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Jamie Foxx have never really given Oscar-caliber performances, or anything close to it, after Academy Award wins for Jerry Maguire and Ray respectively. Philip Seymour Hoffman took home an Oscar for the title role in Capote and has since become one of the top actors currently working in Hollywood. Carey Mulligan charmed the world as a teenager learning the ways of the world in An Education, but the question remains: Was this just a once in a lifetime performance from a young actress or the sign of things to come? The Greatest may not be a good film but it’s a sign that Mulligan is about to join that elite level of actresses currently working in film.
Rose (Mulligan) is a teenager who spent one magical night with Bennett (Aaron Johnson), whom she had a crush on for the four years they went to high school together. When a car crash leaves him dead, and she discovers she’s carrying his child, she moves in with his still grieving parents to sort things out. Allen (Pierce Brosnan) carries everything deep inside, still. Grace (Susan Sarandon) is still grieving openly and in considerable pain. Bennett’s kid brother Ryan (Johnny Simmons) keeps himself under the influence of drugs to keep himself together. It’s a mess of a family to which Rose finds herself joining, and the film follows their attempts at coming together with their grief.
The film plays out with two main storylines: present day grieving and the day Rose and Bennett spent together. When the film goes back to see the two together, it’s cinematic magic at its finest. While we know what ends up happening to the couple from the opening moment of the film, there’s something to be said about watching two people genuinely in love at first sight. Johnson and Mulligan have a palpable, stunning chemistry with one another that carries these moments beyond a typical high school tragic romance. Both are talented young actors and they have just the right amount of chemistry with one another to make the film engrossing during its flashbacks.
Mulligan, whom the film relies on to carry it, is great as Rose and elevates the material far higher then it ought to be. A conflicted teenager trying to navigate choppy waters, Rose just wants to find out about this boy she loved so dearly in a world that makes it consistently tough for her. This is a role of subtlety and nuance and she is note perfect in it. What makes her more interesting in the film is that when paired with both Brosnan and Sarandon she manages to elevate their performances, not the other way around. Sarandon may have an Oscar, and Brosnan may be the most skilled actor to have played James Bond, but both are somewhat lacking in the film when left to their own devices. Mulligan’s sheer presence brings out the best in them and it’s fascinating to watch.
When we see Bennett die, there’s a sadness we feel for Rose that goes beyond its necessary as a plot device. Unfortunately it’s the overzealous melodrama that follows his death that makes the film a frustrating exercise. Shana Feste (who also wrote the film) takes the film from what could’ve been a more nuanced look at death, and the grief that follows, and turns into a clichéd look at a family grieving straight out of Ordinary People. It’s boring and we’ve seen it done before, and done better. The Greatest is just that, perhaps, in name only. But then again, calling it The Mediocre or The Slightly Below Average doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
Director: Shana Feste Notable Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Susan Sarandon, Carey Mulligan, Aaron Johnson, Zoe Kravitz, Johnny Simmons Writer(s): Shana Feste