From its very first moments, there is nothing subtle or misleading about the weepy dramedy Griffin & Phoenix. In the movie’s opening scene, Griffin (Dermot Mulroney) tells his doctor “This is the part of the movie where I ask you to tell it to me straight.” Griffin would be happy to know that his story is told straight to the point at every turn. Unfortunately, the point of the whole endeavor is a mess.
Adapted by John Hill from the 1976 TV movie he also wrote, the 2006 feature follows Griffin, a divorced father of two, as he learns that his cancer has left him with only a year or two at most to live, and tries to figure out the rest of his life. Realizing that he would only have to suffer rejection for a relatively short duration, he flirts with an assistant dean, Phoenix (Amanda Peet), attending the same psychology lecture on coping with death at a local university.
Though she is hesitant to get involved throughout the courtship, she cannot resist Griffin’s charm. But when she finds books on dealing with terminal illness in his home, she is shocked and offended—not because she has figured out his secret illness, but because she is secretly dying of cancer, too.
Sprucing up the dying lover genre is probably a fool’s errand on any terms, but to attempt so by giving both halves of the couple cancer is almost certainly not the best way to do it. Hill and first-time director Ed Stone hardly seem to notice that they are saddled with a ludicrously depressing framework for a movie, either. Though the material might seem to lend itself to an approach centered on insight, intimacy, and character, the movie is much more often put forth as if it were a standard, airy studio romantic-comedy, right down to the sickly sweet score. In fact, it’s hard to tell whether first-time director Ed Stone set out to make the saddest romantic-comedy of all time or to see how much comic relief could be crammed into a maudlin drama.
Casting a project like this with Mulroney and Peet offers no relief. Mulroney tends to be exactly as good as the material he is given; Peet tends to be slightly worse. And both are so straightforward and earnest as actors that they need texture or ensembles to work with. That’s why Mulroney works so well with Nicole Holofcener (Lovely & Amazing, Friends with Money) and Peet seemed like a different actress in Studio 60. Here, there are no rough edges to balance them, and there is nowhere for them to hide, since one or both of them is in every single scene. The writing holds them back at every turn, less concerned with exploring the characters and their unique circumstance than engaging in half-baked banter.
There are a couple of moments that allow Peet to tap into the inner emotion of the story—particularly one in which she berates an abusive mother on the street, channeling her own frustration at not being able to have children. But ultimately, no amount of effort from the actors or handsome New York cinematography from David Dunlap (Shaun of the Dead) can overcome what was clearly a busted idea from the start. Ultimately, Griffin & Phoenix’s destiny seems akin to its roots. Ashes to ashes, TV movie remade into TV movie.