‘Good Grief’ Review: Daniel Levy’s Cathartic Feature Debut Imagines a Different Kind of Broken Hearts Club

‘Good Grief’ Review: Daniel Levy’s Cathartic Feature Debut Imagines a Different Kind of Broken Hearts Club

Movies

It’s one thing to direct an episode of the sitcom on which you appeared for six seasons. “Schitt’s Creek” star Daniel Levy aced that exercise back in 2020, earning an Emmy for co-helming the series finale. But it’s an entirely different challenge to write and direct a smart, sensitive original feature in which you also play the lead character — a feat Levy deftly achieves with New Year’s tearjerker “Good Grief,” giving those unsatisfied with the rest of Netflix’s fluffy Christmas fare something substantial to kick off 2024.

The first week of January seems a fitting time to release a film about three friends shedding their skin for the next chapter in their lives. Appropriately enough, Levy’s debut also sees him leveling up as a more serious storyteller than we’d given him credit for. It was easy to pigeonhole Levy as a comedic talent, given father Eugene’s improv chops, whereas he shows a more poignant and personal side here.

Levy plays Marc, a gay artist in his late 30s whose A-list husband, Oliver (Luke Evans), dies unexpectedly after leaving their holiday party. Rest assured: While the trailers tout how a trip to Paris helps Marc to process that loss, “Good Grief” is a good deal better than that reductive summary sounds. Imagine a satisfying ’90s weepie updated with the millennial bite of “Obvious Child.” That initial tragedy is the toughest, since we know it’s coming. Still, Levy handles Oliver’s death in a fresh way (the party guests joke when they first hear the sirens, until Marc realizes what happened), indicating early that he wants us to feel something without resorting to vulgar manipulation.

The budding filmmaker established his hipster bona fides on “Schitt’s Creek,” playing a blisteringly snobby New Yorker forced to adjust to the real world. Marc’s in for a rude awakening as well. Levy has crafted an emotional story strong enough to withstand the zings of an ironic generation, who’ve been conditioned to snipe at sincerity. It takes guts to put genuine feelings on the line, especially after giving sarcastic-minded viewers so much ammunition. “Good Grief” can be very funny at times, but it’s foremost about facing the painful things in life, like death.

Incidentally, this is the second of two new films in which openly gay Evans plays a married gay man, the other being “Our Son” (sort of a queer “Kramer vs. Kramer,” about a divorcing couple’s complicated custody fight). It’s refreshing to have a star of his stature representing, even if he’s only present for the first scene and a tiny handful of flashbacks. Uncommon among first features, such right-fit casting (which extends to Oliver’s agent, impeccably played by Celia Imrie) allows Levy to work as subtly as he does. Less is more as the ensemble explore the nuances of their characters.

In Marc’s memory, Oliver was the ideal husband: handsome, successful and (he eventually reveals, delving into psychoanalysis territory) a welcome distraction from his mother’s death. The couple got together when Marc should have been grieving, he realizes in retrospect, and now that Oliver’s gone, the young widower has to face the void that both his mother and his partner have left in his life. It doesn’t take a fortuneteller to guess that painting, which Marc put aside years earlier, will play a part in his healing — though leave it to Levy to come up with one of the most romantic scenes you’ll find in any gay love story (a private visit to one of Paris’ most famous artworks).

The filmmaker compresses a year of coping into roughly half an hour, as ex-boyfriend-turned-BFF Thomas (Himesh Patel) and self-described “hot mess” Sophie (Ruth Negga) do what they can to cheer Marc up. After stalling for 12 months, Marc finally opens the last Christmas card Oliver gave him and finds a shock. Without spoiling it, suffice to say, this is how the three friends wind up spending a few days in Paris, where Marc is still down enough to forgo a makeover, shuffling about the glamorous city in sweatpants.

Before making that decision, Marc meets a well-connected French art connoisseur named Theo (“BPM” star Arnaud Valois) at a warehouse happening where Emma Corrin makes a fun cameo as a pathetic performance artist. (Kaitlyn Dever also pops up at Oliver’s funeral as the vacuous star of Oliver’s movies.) Levy shades these characters with a mix of positive and negative qualities — though ever-patient Theo comes so close to being an ideal suitor, it’s a relief that “Good Grief” doesn’t take the easy path of letting romance solve Marc’s moving-on problems. If the story of our lives begins at birth and ends at death, it’s uncanny how often the chapters are delineated by those we lose along the way.

With the hardly insignificant exception of AIDS-themed stories, gay films so often focus on the falling-in-love/falling-in-lust stretch of a relationship. By contrast, this relatively grown-up offering deals with later-stage emotions, joining a very short list (topped by Tom Ford’s “A Single Man”) that concentrate on loss. Levy’s funny-sad contemporary drama acknowledges the supportive dynamic that Marc plays in Thomas and Sophie’s lives, even as it centers the gay best friend for a change — not so different from the one he played in “Happiest Season.” All three characters feel well rounded and real, especially in their imperfections.

To heal, Marc needs to be honest with himself and those closest to him. Levy’s fans know the multitalent can play bitchy and caustic; “Good Grief” shows he can be vulnerable and wise as well.

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