So, surely, you’ve heard the news about Black Panther lately. Not about the racist Twitter trolls claiming fans of the standalone Marvel product physically assaulted them, no – something factually true and more worth your time, instead. Black Panther has grossed around $404 million worldwide – around $235 million of that figure coming domestically. That $235 million is enough to make Ryan Coogler’s latest the fifth-highest opening of all time, as well as quickly own other box office records for a President’s Day and February opening weekend. Between these hard financials and the statistics showing the film was the most talked about film on Twitter ever, Black Panther is currently spearheading the cultural conversation and will do so for a while. And considering the film’s subtext regarding African and African-American histories, as well as a resistance aura contextualized by our sitting President, it’s leading the dialogue in a positive direction despite those who’d use their backwards ideologies to disregard what is a landmark moment, and regardless of its own quality or financial success.
In other words, you’ll be easily forgiven for having forgotten or not even known that Netflix also released a movie on the 16th, Stephanie Laing’s Irreplaceable You, a deliberate tearjerker where the irony of its title won’t be lost on many a seasoned romantic drama viewer. In all honesty, ‘drama’ is something of a misleading term here because it, at least in the theatrical context of its being a genre existing between comedy and tragedy, suggests a semblance of narrative structure in addition to an expected tonal target. Upon reflection, this film is nothing more than a tragedy in disguise – a slight one that admits its inevitable endgame in the opening scene, at that, but continues to subject you to its cynical treacle, anyway.
In yet another disappointing effort from the streaming behemoths, Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays the better half to Game of Thrones’s Michiel Huisman (try recognizing him before you Google it to make sure that’s correct), with the two playing partners and lovers since childhood. Their shared visions and plans of an idyllic future life together come to screeching halt, however, when Mbatha-Raw’s Abbie receives a terminal cancer diagnosis. Suddenly, Abbie’s mind is taken away from these dreams and instead focuses on ensuring Sam’s (Huisman) future is without major struggle, particularly in the romance department, stressing to find his future partner.
Whether or not she does is inconsequential, though, as the true narrative thrust is her realizing that she’s been so preoccupied with dying that she’s forgotten about living in the now while she’s still around. If you’ve either read this synopsis or seen the film’s trailer, congratulations, you shan’t bother about whether or not to press play, because you’ve just seen the film in its entirety and can probably imagine a better product than the one Netflix quietly discarded into its expansive library. Don’t get me wrong, I can see the inherent weight and emotional truth of its premise – that dying, to not exist, is an overwhelming thought that can distract us from the best parts of life before death ultimately removes us from them – though all I or anyone else can ask is that such substance not be manipulated for cinematic effect and morphed into trite observations on existence.
Watching Irreplaceable You is akin to the proverbial hamster on the wheel; you think it’s moving, but in reality, it’s just running in place. From Abbie’s diagnosis to her final moment on camera, the only thing about her that changes is that she’s one day closer to her death – and she stops assuming her fiancée is a helpless sad-sack incapable of matching socks. Otherwise, neither she nor her counterparts contribute anything to make the film’s story any less thin, though often overstuffed with repetitive philosophical arguments as to whether or not living with optimism in the face of imminent death is worth the effort. Her character exists much in the way Christopher Walken’s Myron does; to show two opposing perspectives of life and let the storytellers eventually, yet definitively side with one of either to offer the illusion of narrative progress.
Even more confusing is why the film by Bess Wohl would devote a majority of its runtime to rehashed themes and examinations, taking precious time away from focusing on Sam and seeing his own unique perspective on circumstances through his lens. We may see him express his disapproval and discomfort with how Abbie chooses to cope with her own end, but often only through Abbie’s admittedly limited gaze, meaning we’re given little to no insight on the depth of his emotions. In all fairness, the film is Abbie’s story and whatever Sam provides as a character ought not infringe upon that too much, and also it hardly seems as though Huisman is genuinely invested in making this material work, and much the same can be said of most of his co-stars, including Mbatha-Raw and Walken; weaving in and out of visible effort that allows viewers to immerse themselves in the melodramatic peaks and valleys rather than reluctantly succumb to the pinch and pull of a wandering hook forcefully lodged into their cheeks.
And tonally speaking, Irreplaceable You will tug you every which way it deems necessary, often mistaking when it is appropriate to be pulled in a certain direction. Specifically, the lighter, more humorous moments frequently fall uncomfortably flat, usually because it seems Laing and Wohl are using comedy as an excuse for cheap entertainment value rather than cathartic release. Comedy plays a significant role in tragedy, particularly to do with when and how a character is able to receive and project it, and thus can play an important part in detail any given character’s development. Not only is there not enough development present in any of this film’s protagonists to let this idea play a subtle roll, but also the comedy’s presentation here does more to induce cringing responses rather than bittersweet empathy. Not to mention, it couldn’t feel more shoehorned lodged in between however the film chooses to unapologetically yank on your heartstrings, whether it be through romance or melancholy.
Honestly, I truly believe Laing and Wohl went into this project with nothing but the best intentions in mind, but at least through my perspective, those good intentions weren’t on display. With death being such a common use of evoking drama and generating audience engagement, Irreplaceable You is the sort of film that’s beginning to really get on my nerves; one that exploits sorrow for easy narrative material to gain audience approval, rather than one that takes a hard, difficult look into the nuances of mourning and existential finality. Laing said that with this production, she “made an intentional effort to hire women for roles that are typically occupied by men in the industry.” A noble cause, certainly, but it’s too bad it’s the only aspect of this film worth applauding.