The sheer unpleasantness of the thought that, one day, we are all bound to die has naturally led to human beings creating various methods to avoid worrying about the inevitable. Religion is, of course, the most obvious – but comedy comes a close second. Taking the micky out of death has a long history, making light of our inevitable demise largely to – bizarrely, if you think about it – help us all stop, well, thinking about it.
Death and romance, however, has a less entertaining history. Our own deaths may be unpleasant enough to think about, but the death of the person we love – be it a boyfriend, girlfriend, husband or wife – is something none of us want to dwell on, let alone fine humour in. Who among us who’s in a committed relationship, after all, wants to ponder on that day when the partnership you’ve chosen for life ends – let alone ends in the most permanent possible way? Even the most cynical person would find it hard to find humour in a widow or widower.
In other words, it’s hard to work out quite how anyone ever thought this film was going to make money. How did the pitch to the studio go? “Look, guys, it’s about a woman mourning her dead husband, yeah? A bit like Ghost, only instead of Patrick Swayze hanging around and indulging in a bit of post-death pottery with Demi Moore, this time the guy’s going to stay properly dead. No spirits, or spooks; no sitting around a Ouija board; nothing. Just the occasional flashback to show what a wonderful guy he was, to underline that his widow’s fully justified in her grief. Oh, and did I mention that it’s a comedy?”
Sounds like a regular laugh a minute, doesn’t it? The multiplexes will be packed out with queues around the block.
The really surprising thing is the cast. With former Oscar-winner Hilary Swank in the lead as the young widow, distraught by her bereavement, and 300’s Gerard Butler as her dead hubby – not to mention support from the likes of Kathy Bates, Gina Gershon and Lisa Kudrow – there’s some decent talent on show here. The only trouble is, it’s hard to do much than melodramatically emote with a story such as this. As the sweet dead husband, who somehow managed to find time while dying to plan a complex succession of letters to help his wife get over him, Butler can do little more than smile whimsically to show what a thoroughly nice chap he is. Swank gets to do a bit of crying and then turn equally whimsical as she ponders the meaning of this series of gifts from the wonderful man she’s lost. The rest of the cast spend the duration trying not to look like so much excess baggage, with the occasional look of concern and empathy soon giving way to desperate attempts to keep a straight face while doing umpteen variations on “aaaah! How sweet!”
Written and directed by the man behind the screenplays for the saccharine likes of The Horse Whisperer and The Bridges of Madison County, schmaltzy sentimentalism would seem to be the order of the day. But, let’s face it, with a premise as morbidly depressing as “dying man leaves messages for his wife to find after he’s gone”, such an approach is pretty much the only way to tackle a story that could otherwise leave the audience in a state of dire depression. “Comedy”, however, is hardly the word that first springs to mind – not in the modern sense, at any rate. Yes, the film may end happily enough. But the trouble is, Swank’s husband’s still dead – and the tragic death of a loved one is never going to be the sort of thought most cinema-goers want to be left with after a night out at the movies.