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The empty emotions of Me Before You'

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Manipulative, formulaic love story offers nothing genuine

Love stories are a foundational aspect of cinema. Even films that are ostensibly about something else tend to have romantic underpinnings that serve as a touchstone throughout, but capital-L Love Stories are kind of their own thing.

These films can be beautifully made, but often, they are simply hollow, saccharine exercises that substitute emotional manipulation for genuine feeling. Don't get me wrong the tears will flow regardless, but I get a little irritated when it's plainly obvious what is happening.

'Me Before You' adapted to the screen by Jojo Moyes from her novel of the same name is precisely that sort of film, relying on clichs and formulas to put its characters in situations that inspire emotional response despite an utter lack of investment on an intellectual level.

Basically, you'll probably cry, but you'll be resentful about it.

Will Traynor (Sam Claflin, 'The Huntsman: Winter's War') has it all. He's good-looking and wealthy, with a great job and a beautiful girlfriend and an adventurous life. But one rainy morning, it all changes while walking to hail a cab, he's struck by a motorcycle. He survives the accident, but is now bound to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Louisa Clark (Emilia Clarke, TV's 'Game of Thrones') is struggling to get by. Her boyfriend Patrick (Matthew Lewis, TV's 'Ripper Street') is a bit of a dolt. She's just lost her job at the local caf and is trying to decide what she can do next. Her family needs the money she can bring in especially now that her sister Katrina (Jenna Coleman, TV's 'Victoria') is looking to move out and move on.

The local job placement agency sends Louisa for an interview as a caregiver at the Traynor estate. Will's parents Camilla (Janet McTeer, 'Allegiant') and Stephen (Charles Dance, 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies') are looking to bring someone in to provide companionship to Will his medical needs are seen to by Nathan (Stephen Peacocke, 'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot').

Will and Louisa immediately butt heads, with Louisa's bubbly chattiness at odds with the brooding, angry Will. Despite the frustration of being shut out, Louisa continues to try to make inroads with Will, chipping away at the thick emotional walls he has built. She refuses to pity his situation, choosing instead to try and change his life for the better.

We all know what happens next you've seen this movie even if you haven't seen this movie.

Of course, there's something even more tragic beneath the tragic surface of Will's tragedy. Louisa devotes herself to helping Will through his ordeal, sacrificing much, but gaining much more in return.

(Spoiler alert: the ending is sad, then happy (kind of), but still pretty much sad.)

'Me Before You' is the sort of movie that you just assume comes from a Nicholas Sparks novel. Even after you know that it doesn't, you can't help but view it from a Sparksian perspective. There are only so many ways that we can be made to feel for star-crossed lovers before the visceral reaction they inspire becomes rote. Tears flow, but they don't mean anything.

(All this leaves aside a basic plot point that is actually kind of unpleasant and tone-deaf involving Will's choices about his life. No details, but it definitely makes some unfortunate assumptions regarding his specific situation.)

What success the film does have springs from its two leads. Claflin and Clarke are undeniably engaging as an on-screen pairing. Oftentimes in these love stories, we just get two pretty people staring blankly at one another. Not so here they're surprisingly good considering the relative weakness of the narrative and dialogue. The supporting cast has some real highlights McTeer and Dance are excellent, for instance, and it's nice to see Lewis busting free from his Neville Longbottom roots.

Unfortunately, a handful of quality performances isn't nearly enough to salvage 'Me Before You.' It feels both derivative and a little cynical, content to push the audience's buttons without truly engaging them. Yes, there are sad moments, but the film rarely earns them, choosing instead to skip along the surface and avoid any real depth of exploration.

[1 out of 5]

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