The London and Paris locations are pretty, the likable cast all look stylish in their voluminous coats and slouchy pants and distressed knits, and the countless teary-eyed close-ups are designed to touch our hearts. But Netflix’s Good Grief, despite its characters’ extensive soul-dredging, is all surface, perfectly watchable but a little dull. Working both behind and in front of the camera after having cut his teeth directing episodes of Schitt’s Creek, Daniel Levy has made a first feature that’s a glossy drama of love and loss and the restorative power of friendship. But it’s more earnest than affecting.
The opening scene makes this, if not a Christmas movie, then a Christmas-adjacent one. Levy plays Marc, a London artist who has put aside his own creative work to serve as illustrator on the best-selling series of fantasy novels written by his adored husband, Oliver (Luke Evans), about telepathic truth-seeker Victoria Valentine, which have been turned into a major film franchise.
Before he heads off to a book signing in Paris, Oliver oversees the annual singalong segment of their holiday party, leading the guests in a gorgeous choral arrangement of William Bell’s seasonal classic, “Everyday Will Be Like a Holiday.” It’s the most emotional moment in the movie. But Marc has barely said goodbye when flashing lights from the street outside reveal an accident involving Oliver’s taxi.
Shattering loss, which comes not long after Marc’s mother’s death, makes him cling tight to his chosen family — boozy, boho-chic Sophie (Ruth Negga) and unhappily single ex-boyfriend Thomas (Himesh Patel). Already, at Oliver’s funeral, tonal uncertainty creeps in when the actress who stars as Victoria in the films (Kaitlyn Dever) speaks at the service, dressed in wildly inappropriate attire and making it all about her. It’s a jarring bit of heavy-handed satire that feels out of place. Oliver’s father (David Bradley) gets things back on track in a moving speech performed with aching tenderness.
Marc’s unsettling discovery from the couple’s accountant (Celia Imrie) that Oliver owned a pied-à-terre in Paris leads him finally to open the Christmas card his husband handed him before leaving that fateful night. What he learns forces him to rethink his entire marriage and seems to make a mockery of the year he has spent grieving. Keeping the information to himself, he invites Sophie and Thomas to spend a weekend with him in the French capital, ostensibly as a thank-you for their loving support.
Similar situations in which widowed spouses find themselves confronted by their late partners’ secrets have been explored in films ranging from Euro auteur drama like Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue to forgettable studio efforts like Sydney Pollack’s Random Hearts.
But Levy’s interest in that eye-opening discovery goes only so far. Eventually, external factors leave Marc no choice but to fill in the missing details for Sophie and Thomas, by which time the focus has shifted to the emotional stagnation in the lives of all three. Their mutual dissatisfaction bubbles up while riding the giant Ferris wheel at Place de la Concorde, set against the backdrop of Paris’ twinkling night sky.
The fancy location for that scene — just like an after-hours Orangerie visit with a romantic Frenchman (Arnaud Valois) to see Monet’s “Water Lilies” — is characteristic of a movie that dresses up familiar relationship drama by superficial means while too seldom going beyond platitudes or pop-psych talking points about how we process grief or how indispensable trusted friends can be in working through emotional crises.