It may be unfair to compare "The Greatest" to a film as rare and perfect as "Ordinary People," but in this case, it's inevitable. Both movies, which involve the impact of a golden boy's accidental death on his troubled parents and self-destructive younger brother, intersect on such an essential level -- they even share the same gifted cinematographer -- it sometimes feels as if "Greatest" writer-director Shana Feste is channeling the 1980 Oscar winner through her own personal prism (she admits her script was partly inspired by autobiographical events).
In stronger hands, that would not necessarily be such a bad thing. Unfortunately, though its heart is smack in the right place, "The Greatest" tends to play more like a collection of appropriate, well-acted scenes than as a fully satisfying narrative. Missing is the kind of connective tissue that would not only better bind the movie's wounded characters but deepen the profundity of their plight.
This problem is most evident between leads Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon as Allen and Grace Brewer, the grieving parents of 18-year-old Bennett (Aaron Johnson), a well-liked charmer killed in a car accident during a date with new girlfriend Rose ("An Education's" Carey Mulligan). Like the polarized Calvin and Beth Jarrett of "Ordinary People," the stoic Allen and chilly Grace process their pain differently and separately. However, unlike the Jarretts, the Brewers rarely feel like a flesh-and-blood couple but, instead, a pair of fine actors brought together by a suitable script.
Math professor Allen's recent affair with a lovely colleague (Jennifer Ehle) provides a potential key to the marital problems between Allen and Grace that clearly predated their son's death. But, like much else here, it goes underexplored. Meanwhile, Grace's obsession with confronting the now-comatose driver ( Michael Shannon) whose car hit Bennett's, though a mother's legitimate need, feels forced and less convincing than it should.
Then there's younger Brewer son Ryan (an excellent Johnny Simmons), a self-described screw-up who navigates his own path of grief with the help of a support group. A subplot in which Ryan befriends a cute co-mourner (Zoe Kravitz, Lenny's daughter) with serious baggage, results in an ineffective and, frankly, creepy twist. Better to have spent that screen time further examining how and why Ryan turned to drugs -- and where his parents fit in to that apparent mess.
That leaves the gentle Rose to provide the movie's actual engine, but even she can't make the story fully take flight. Her surprise appearance in the Brewers' lives includes the revealing trifecta that she was Bennett's girlfriend, that she needs a place to live and that, ta-da, she's pregnant with Bennett's child. Allen, of course, swallows all this news better than Grace, who nonetheless allows Rose to move in with them. Needless to say, a rocky time is had by all as Rose and the Brewers slowly fill in each others' gaps about their beloved Bennett. To that end, Rose's flashbacks to her and Bennett's long-gestating romance provide a genuine poignancy not felt often enough in a film that lives and, well, dies on its emotional resonance.