It is always interesting to think about the exact story being told when one is watching a movie (or reading a book, watching a TV show, etc.). Who is it that is telling the tale? What is their POV? What is their goal? Why are we getting that view?
Watching Marc Meyers’ new film (written by Todd Rosenberg), “All My Life,” one might initially think that this is the based-on-a-true-story tale of one couple, their romance, and their tragedy. It has all the hallmarks of being such a movie – we have the “meet cute” and the falling in love and the cancer diagnosis and the wedding; but the reality is different. This is most definitely not a story of the couple – this is the story of the woman in the relationship, Jenn (Jessica Rothe), not so much that of the man, Sol (Harry Shum Jr.). There is—make no mistake—absolutely no reason to not make this the story of Jenn as opposed to Jenn and Sol; it is the movie’s feints towards it being Jenn and Sol where the problem exists.
Without question there are clues about this early on as it is Jenn who provides a voiceover at the beginning of the movie. Soon enough, however, Meyers lulls one into the false belief that it is really about the two of them and the movie is great when it highlights the wonderfulness of Jenn and Sol. They are both charming and witty individuals. We get to see Jenn push Sol to follow his dreams and be frustrated in him when he seems willing to settle. We see her deliver a lovely, if rather over the top and quite filmic, marriage proposal. We even see how his friends and her friends become their friends.
I love this last bit. She’s got two friends, Megan (Marielle Scott) and Amanda (Chrissie Fit), and he’s got two friends, Dave (Jay Pharoah) and Kyle (Kyle Allen), and soon enough the groups have melded. It’s not “his” and “hers,” it’s “theirs.” There are even a whole lot of tertiary folks who keep popping up. It feels real and truly sweet.
It isn’t perfect though. There are some problems in the structure of the secondary/tertiary characters and at least one subplot that isn’t explored and doesn’t go anywhere but which is mentioned over and over again. It very much makes it seem as though there is a whole lot left on the cutting room floor.
That said, it is somewhat understandable that story arcs given to secondary characters don’t get explored, but it isn’t great when a primary character’s arc finds the same fate. Once the romance between Jenn and Sol is established and they’re moving towards a wedding, Sol is diagnosed with liver cancer. It is here, with the diagnosis and its ramifications, that “All My Life” shows whose story is being told. Rather than sticking with Sol for most of these hard moments and the difficulties that crop up in the relationship as a result, what we mainly get is Jenn’s reaction to Sol’s illness; the audience is placed at one remove from the core of the action. In a crucial moment during the movie, we get her aggrievement about his attitude towards his cancer not his upset with his cancer.
Undeniably, what Jenn goes through is horrible, but it feels off for a movie to pitch itself about being about these two people and then giving short shrift to the one with the deadly illness. Yet, that is exactly what happens. We, as an audience, are not brought closer to Sol’s cancer by Jenn’s upset, we are simply given the (very understandable and completely appropriate) upset.
Some of this issue may come from the fact that the movie puts a lot on its shoulders. For most movies it would be enough to show a relationship blossom, to depict a rushed marriage and the awesome kindness of strangers who fundraise for it, or to tell the story of one person in a couple having cancer and how that affects the two people. “All My Life” does all of those things and, for the most part, does them quite well. It just drops the ball where it most needs to succeed.
Rothe is very engaging and Shum is fantastic. The supporting cast is equally likable and when the movie sticks to the lighter moments of the relationship, or at least those which can be played for laughs, it is an above average rom-com. It just never quite works when it has to deal with the weightier aspects of the story. It is here where it becomes all too clear that by placing a primacy on Jenn—by having this be her tale, not his, not theirs—that it isn’t quite capable of hitting the serious moments as it needs to in order to be successful.
“All My Life” is a perfectly fine movie that does so much, so well. What it is not, is the tale of a couple who meet and then face a problem; and that’s okay. But, because it is the tale of one person in the couple, it never quite works at making us feel, as we must, for the other individual and it is weaker for it. It is still pleasant and funny and sweet and will make a significant portion of the viewing audience cry, but it is a movie that feels as though it is on the cusp of greatness and simply can’t get there.
photo credit: Universal Studios