Director Dan Levy surely knew that a movie follow-up to the fizzy, funny and starmaking sleeper success that was his Emmy-winning “Schitt’s Creek” wouldn’t be as simple as copying and pasting its winning formula onto the demands of a feature. Thankfully “Good Grief,” the holiday-perfumed comedy-drama that he also wrote and stars in, feels like its own thing. If “Schitt’s” was a tart snack with an admirably gooey center, “Good Grief” — about overcoming loss with exasperating friends in luxe locations — prefers its savoriness and sweetness in a more balanced swirl.
If only it felt like a full meal. “Good Grief” ultimately promises more than its starter kit of rom-com elements and good intentions can deliver. But within that inviting aura are a number of pleasures, starting with Levy’s homo-neurotic appeal as a cynically romantic gay lead. There’s also a suitably knotty situation warranting a trip to Paris (as one must), sprinkled throughout with the great Ruth Negga giving lively silent-era-worthy flamboyance as “a lot,” to use her character’s self-descriptor.
We first meet Levy’s Marc, a painter turned illustrator, at the Christmas soiree he and his charming, bestselling-author-hubby, Oliver (Luke Evans), throw every year at their London digs. The festivities come to a literally crashing halt, though, when Oliver leaves early for a work trip and dies only a block away in a car accident.
Right away, in a nicely piquant funeral scene, Levy shows how grief is never one thing (and not always unfunny): For an obliviously narcissistic actor from one of the movies adapted from Oliver’s YA novels (a one-scene Kaitlyn Dever), death is a snuffed-out franchise. But to the dad who learned to accept his boy writing about princesses (an exquisite performance by David Bradley), sorrow and gratitude can be beautifully intertwined.
For Marc, however, grief is something he stumbles through, complicated by the reveal a year later that Oliver had planned to leave him for someone else. Shattered and confused, Marc heads to Paris with friends Sophie (Negga) and Thomas (Himesh Patel) in tow to look for the roots of a betrayal but also a hoped-for reset.
You can’t fault Levy for wanting his first movie to double-dip on its Europhilia, moving from Christmas-y London to cozy Paris. And nestled in the cafe talks and rueful walks — including one Marc has with a potential flame (Arnaud Valois) — are some acute observations about under-examined lives and over-accepted behavior in loved ones. Not to mention a heartbreak playlist unhip enough to reach back and tap Bonnie Raitt and Neil Young for vibes.
As adult as “Good Grief” sometimes feels, it also plays a tad thinly, plotted without too much attention paid to what makes sense, or what might warrant richer exploration beyond a well-turned line. Levy’s front-and-center sadness compels, but even with Negga’s watchably flighty antics and Patel’s believable gravitas, these characters aren’t rich enough for the third act’s friendship crisis to successfully pull the movie out of a noticeable dip in energy. And the less said about Marc’s journey, the better, art therapy being much lower on the list of acceptable rom-com clichés than zippy one-liners or a City of Lights backdrop.
Marc is grieving Oliver, but you could certainly read something else into the emotional parameters of “Good Grief”: Levy trying to figure out his way post-“Schitt’s Creek.” That’s a likable aspect to this uneven but earnest movie, one you can see played out in Levy’s face, made for comedy but also delicately brooding, scared and quizzical. “Good Grief” may not fully satisfy as a heart-and-soul affair, but it brews a desire to see more of what we know Levy can offer.
Rating: R, for language and brief drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Playing: Now streaming on Netflix