BEFORE WE GO Review: Well-Intentioned Amateur Hour

Chris Evans’ subpar directorial debut.

The New York movie has a history as rich as the city itself, from John Cassavetes, to Woody Allen, to Spike Lee, to Noah Baumbach. Perhaps that’s an unfair comparison, but like Chris Evans, these directors have either lived or studied in New York as they lived and studied the city itself. Their films reflect this, or at least they’re meant to. In each case, you can somewhat gauge the director’s relationship to the city, their thoughts and feelings about it, and despite there being so, so many films set in New York, it’s not hard to recognize which ones treat it as a character. Before We Go is one such film, and it makes genuine attempts to be as much about New York as it is about its characters, but while it shoots for the moon, it lands somewhere in the middle of New Jersey.

Before We Go's understanding of its surroundings, much like its understanding of its characters and their struggles, is both literal and superficial. Barring the opening few minutes, where the camera captures couples all around Grand Central in an almost documentarian fashion, there’s nothing that seems to bind this story together for at least its first hour, which is far too long for any movie, let alone one that’s over within an hour and a half. Trumpet player Nick Vaughn (Evans), who is in town for an audition, practices in a corner of the station, as he holds off on attending a wedding reception for fear of running into his ex. He sees Brooke (Alice Eve) miss the final train to Boston and decides to help her. Evans exudes charm, as expected, but even his attempts at forcing his heroism on her feel off-putting at best.

They part ways, but he catches up to her in order to accompany her past a group of men on the street, a scene that’s indicative of Evans’ wrong-headed approach to understanding the city. The scene occurs in a brightly lit area of Midtown Manhattan, on a visible street, illuminated by large shop windows, and the film presents it as such. Perhaps this is simply my male perspective, as having to navigate such men on the street isn’t something I often need to think about, but other than the expression on Alice Eve’s face, the language of the scene doesn’t indicate that anything would seem the matter to Evans’ character, which is what makes his heroic arrival somewhat confounding. He puts his arm around her as they walk past the group of intoxicated twenty-somethings, and from there, she agrees to let him help her for the rest of the night.

Brooke had her purse stolen at a bar. She has no money, and she has to make it home before her husband returns from his trip, or else her marriage is over. That’s the information Nick is provided with, after which he works his way from conclusion to conclusion, as the non-mystery unravels itself, revealing situational contrivances that serve only the film’s desire to feature situational contrivances. The only problem is that without any actual information on who the characters are, or what they’re doing in New York City, or what they hope to achieve by the end of the night, the film has no discernable forward momentum. Sure, Brooke wants to find her purse, but how is that going to save her marriage? Why is getting home before her husband vital if he knows she’s in New York for the evening? All these questions are eventually answered (the answers aren’t interesting enough for me to want to spoil them), but by the time we get them, the film has tried to stay afloat on the charm of Chris Evans alone, which – shocking as it might sound – is not enough.

They wander from place to place, making small talk while trying to figure out how to get Brooke back home, but the small talk is rarely indicative of character, and even when it is, what’s revealed is paper thin. Nick is charming and somewhat quick-witted, but apart from not wanting to see his ex, there’s little to him beyond being extremely helpful. That should be enough in a film where Nick was written in service of the plot, but the plot was written in service of Nick. For that pesky first hour, the ex, the audition, the purse and husband may as well have been nameless MacGuffins, as even Brooke never really manages to go beyond ‘worried’ and ‘slightly less worried because Nick made a joke.’

None of the information is conveyed visually, and for a film that’s mostly two people walking around and talking, that’s a huge problem if the characters are half-formed. What’s even more bizarre is the fact that there’s eventually a pseudo-romance hinted at (a mere four hours after they’ve met) and an implication that Nick has fallen in love with this woman, even though the film acknowledges the time span. This isn’t just a mere throwaway, it’s treated as a huge part of Nick’s catharsis. His journey turns out to involve not being able to get over someone, but his destination is learning that he can love multiple people. Similarly, Brooke’s dilemma is whether or not she has the ability to get out of a situation in which she feels trapped, yet her big decision involves whether or not she can forgive herself for judging her husband too harshly. There’s a massive disconnect between each and every plot thread, and all too often, it’s for the mere sake of momentary surprise.

Not unlike its scripting, there is something exceedingly amateur about the way key moments unfold, and it’s an approach I’m all too familiar with. Every time I go back and watch some of my old student films, mostly from before I learned to make active decisions about shot selection and pacing, I noticed that I would allow my camera to hover and let the actor fill in the space as they pleased, and I’d even use their movements (during silent scenes) as an opportunity to throw in a few unmotivated jump cuts to give the story the appearance of progress. That same poorly thought out approach to both direction and editing is all too prevalent in Before We Go, so much so that I’m almost inclined to judge it as a film made by someone who’s never really thought about what goes in to directing.

That’s as harsh as I’m going to get. I don’t wish to dismiss the film altogether because it means well. That might seem like a silly reason, but after the first hour, there are a couple of scenes where the dialog almost makes an impact, and the character paths almost cross in a way that’s more than just physical, and the way they try and help each other overcome their emotional burdens almost make me feel something. For a few minutes, there’s a sense that Evans (and his character) is desperate for some kind of closure. This would’ve been a much stronger driving force if it wasn’t introduced an hour into the movie and then dispensed with in about ten minutes, and the same thing happens with Brooke’s complicated story about her formerly unfaithful husband whom she supposedly misjudged.

Whatever reconciliations they come to (disconnected ones that have little to do with that first hour), they come to them because they help each other. It doesn’t really make sense when you think about it, not in any logical way, but there’s nothing deceptive about the film other than the information it withholds. It isn’t trying to skew perceptions or change minds, or even justify any of the characters’ wrongdoings. It’s merely about letting go of the past, and helping others to do the same, even though it only spends a couple of scenes on this. The rest of it is a void of thematic nothingness, but I don’t hate it. I’m not even sure I feel strongly enough about the fact that it’s a complete mess of a film. That’s probably because I’m a sucker for simple stories about people being good to each other, but it’s also partially because it’s not an ego-driven project. While Chris Evans plays the charming, charismatic and heroic lead (at least that was his intent), the story isn’t about his charm, his charisma, or his heroism. That certainly doesn’t excuse the myriad of amateur mistakes it makes, but I can’t really fault it for trying really, really hard to be an appeal to goodness. Its biggest failure is that it never really lives up to that potential.