Toward the end of the film “Our Friend” (2019) words are sung from the Grateful Dead’s “If I Had the World to Give”: “I will give what love I have to give Long as I live.” What this excellent film featuring the married couple Matthew Teague (Casey Affleck) and Nicole (Dakota Johnson) and their best friend, Dane (Jason Segel), so powerfully demonstrates is exactly what the song line highlights--love.
It is a word often flung around carelessly, especially when used in a romantic sense, but it is of vital importance--I would even go so far as to say it is the key to a good and happy life.
Without giving away too much of what happens in the film, I’ll just mention that Matt, Nicole, and their two young daughters, Molly (Isabella Kai) and Evie (Violet McGraw), confront a major crisis--Nicole is diagnosed with cancer. And as with all of us in major crises, they struggle how to cope. And yes, the film’s answer is love. But this response is skillfully and artistically, not dogmatically, portrayed, primarily through the actions of Matt and Dane, who is first mentioned in the film when Nicole asks Matt, “Will you come to the cast party [for a play she is acting in]? and “Will you be nice to Dane?” His answer, “The asshole who asked you out on a date?” But Nicole responds, “he didn't know that I was married.” (Film quotes are from the script.) And Dane soon becomes not only Nicole’s friend but also Matt’s.
There are many types of love, and Matt’s toward Nicole is a marital love. As I wrote seven years ago, at its best such a love is a complex phenomenon that combines being attracted by a spouse’s looks and goodness with a desire to further his/her needs and wishes. (At one point Matt recalls telling Nicole, “you were the most beautiful woman I've ever seen.”) Such marital love also demands good communication and empathy. I quoted the words on love of that great helper of the poor Dorothy Day, “[It is] sustained by an effort of the will. It is not just an emotion, a warm feeling of gratification. It must lie still and quiet, dull and smoldering, for periods. It grows through suffering and patience and compassion. We must suffer for those we love, we must endure their trials and their sufferings.” She also noted that we need to “keep on loving, and showing that love, and expressing that love, over and over, whether we feel it or not . . . and to be oblivious of insult, or hurt, or injury—not to see them, not to hear them. . . . not judge, not do anything, but love, love, love.”
In that same article I wrote, “In many marriages temptations arise. . . . All sorts of . . . factors can tempt us to stray. But if we love strongly it can hold us back from betraying our spouse because we realize the hurt it could inflict.”
The film depicts one occasion where Matt is tempted. He is in a foreign country, where he is acting as a foreign correspondent, and has drinks with another reporter, an attractive women named Elizabeth. When they finish, they take the elevator up to hotel floors they are staying on, she on four, he on six. When they get to four, she suggests he get out and join her in her room--for what purpose is left to the viewer’s imagination. But Matt declines her offer.
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Sometime later, after Matt returns home, discovers Nicole has had an affair, and gets angry, she responds, “You're gonna tell me, Matt, that on all of those trips and all of the months and months and months that you spent away from us that you never once . . .” He angrily retorts, “ Never once! Never once. That never happened, Nicole.”
The question for Matt is whether after his discovery, he is going to continue with Nicole or end their marriage. His decision? “Well, I don't really know if it's gonna work. I don't know if it's gonna work. But I'm willing to try.” And he does, and they patch things up. Thus, when Nicole is diagnosed with cancer, they work together to face it with all the strength they can muster.
The love that Dane demonstrates is fraternal love, “the kind of love that encourages compassionate actions toward others around you.” It calls to mind the words of St. Paul: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” Dane’s love for Matt, Nicole, and their two daughters is the type of love that we would all hope for from our friends in times of crises. Dane seems always there, willing to help out whenever and wherever he is needed, whether it be running errands or watching the daughters. At one point Matt tells a guest who is critical of his friend, “Dane's pulling us through here.”
But one of the great strengths of the film is its realism--as the film tells us at the end, it is based on a true story, an essay by Matt. Thus, the main characters, including Matt and Dane, all have their faults. One exchange between the two men clearly demonstrates this when Dane advises Matt not to take a foreign assignment and instead “stick around” and be with Nicole and the girls. Matt then responds: “And you think I should be taking life advice from you,” a guy who sells “discount floor hockey equipment”? Dane replies, “You think I don't know my life's shit right now?” To which Matt counters, “Yeah, well, then don't tell me what the fuck to do. All right.”
Besides depicting the power of love and its great balm in tragic times, and besides its realism, the film has many other pluses. The acting is first rate. Casey Affleck once again demonstrates that his Oscar in 2017 for “Manchester by the Sea” was no fluke. As Dane, Jason Segel has never been better. And in the pivotal role of Nicole--wife, mother, many-friended small-town actress who gets cancer--Dakota Johnson captures well a complex human being demonstrating a full range of emotions. In less significant roles, the two young actresses playing the daughters and Cherry Jones playing a wise nurse are also excellent.
Other pluses include touches of humor--Dane’s joshing with the daughters is especially notable--and some fine scenes such as Dane’s encounter with a foreign woman while hiking and Nicole’s interactions with her theater friends.
Like almost all films, “Our Friend” has its flaws. For example, the flashing back and forth over a 14-year period is at times confusing. But in these times of great complexity and disarray (coronavirus, political gridlock, etc.), it is good to be reminded that there is one rock-solid lodestar to guide us--love.
Walter G. Moss