Film Review: Just Before I Go

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You might expect that a comedy that begins with its main character sinking to the bottom of a lake would have nowhere to go but up. In the case of Just Before I Go, however, you’d be wrong. Written by David Flebotte and directed by Courteney Cox, making her feature filmmaking debut, the movie attempts to put a darkly amusing spin on the traditional “grown man/woman returns to his/her small hometown” narrative arc. It’s a genre that’s ripe for ridicule, given that the more traditional examples of this scenario tend to be sickeningly saccharine and obnoxiously predictable. Exceptions do exist, of course; Ted Demme’s heartfelt Beautiful Girls is beloved by many, as is George Armitage’s Grosse Point Blank from the following year. And then there’s Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s Young Adult, a razor sharp homecoming comedy that’s prickly and provocative in all the right ways…which is probably why it was also a box-office washout.

Just Before I Go would like to imagine itself as provocative as well; that’s why it takes such pleasure in presenting most of its characters as major and minor jerks. This applies even to the nominal hero, Ted Morgan (Seann William Scott), a perpetual sad sack with a suicidal bent. After his wife walks out on him, Ted returns home with the express purpose of settling a few old scores before offing himself. His specific targets are a former teacher, who openly ridiculed him in school, and a former bully, both of whom have undergone some extensive life changes since he last saw them. The teacher is lying on her deathbed, while the bully, Rawly (Rob Riggle), is a regretful widower who wants, nay, encourages Ted to mete out some overdue payback by drizzling Tabasco sauce in his former tormenter’s eyes.  

With revenge off the table and suicide consequently delayed, Ted grudgingly spends some time with his alpha-male brother, Lucky (Garret Dillahunt), unhappily married to Kathleen (Kate Walsh), who engages in nocturnal acts of sleep masturbation—the next step beyond mere sleepwalking. Their eldest son, Zeke (Kyle Gallner), has his own issues as well; he’s a closeted gay teen in a secret relationship with a classmate stuck in a town that’s still not wholly accepting of that kind of love. Ted’s own romantic yearnings pull him in the direction of Vickie (Mackenzie Marsh), an elementary school crush now married with five kids, as well as Greta (Olivia Thirlby), the sarcastic granddaughter of the dying teacher he blames for his present-day passivity and deep-seated feelings of inadequacy.

That old lady isn’t the real root of his trouble, though. Instead, Ted’s issues largely stem from the death of his big-hearted father (Clancy Brown) at a young age, a loss that still weighs heavily on his mind. In fact, grief—whether over the death of a loved one or the life that might have been—turns out to be the common thread running through Just Before I Go, frequently providing the underlying explanation for the characters’ bad behavior. As if to drive that home, Flebotte’s script abandons comedy for much of the final act (though, come to think of it, it’s not as if genuine laughs are plentiful before that) as these various individuals converge for a moment of shared, and entirely forced, catharsis.

Cox must have seen something in this screenplay that encouraged her to film it, but whatever that critical element was, it’s not apparent in the finished product. For an actress who has several long-running sitcoms on her résumé (including “Friends”and, more recently, “Cougar Town”), she doesn’t display a strong sense of comic timing behind the camera…at least not for this particular tenor of comedy. Cox does, at least, place a lot of trust in her cast, who attack the thin material as best they can. With his Stifler days firmly in the past, Scott is aging into a more interesting screen presence, while Thirlby, Marsh and Walsh carve out some nice individual moments for themselves as three women who may be separated by age and living arrangements, but share some similar frustrations. The ensemble makes Just Before I Go watchable, but never anything approaching memorable.   

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