Irreplaceable You questions the inevitable what ifs? that follow the devastating news of a terminal diagnosis. This heartbreaking romance follows Sam and Abbie’s life after discovering Abbie is at stage 4 cancer. Netflix delivers a tear jerker sure to soften even the hardest of hearts. Directed by Stephanie Laing, and starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michiel Huisman, Christopher Walken and Steve Coogan.
Clearly, this is Netflix’s answer to the curious and peculiar sub-genre of romances that welcome the morbid theme of terminal illness. Although terribly sad and indeed managing to bring a tear to my eye, it can’t be helped but be said that Irreplaceable You feels like a salvage project. Taking all the cliches and conventions we’ve come to expect, thanks to films like The Fault in Our Stars and Now is Good, it’s not hard to make comparisons. Two people crazy in love, one terminally ill, one pushing the other away for essentially being a tragedy waiting to happen. Coincidentally enough, our protagonist, also shockingly, is diagnosed with cancer at a tragically young age.
Irreplaceable You opens with a modern-day prologue, not too dissimilar to the introduction to Romeo and Juliet, one that lets the audience know that Abbie will eventually die. Giving the audience no ifs or buts, no faith that a cure will be found, instead just an informed look at how the characters choose to spend the time they have left together. This makes for a more heart-wrenching experience, similar to Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, it is known from the very start that the person diagnosed isn’t going to make it. Knowledge of the final outcome fuels the audience to experience a sense of vulnerability and a lack of power alongside Abbie, as she tries to cope with the truth of promised death.
Although rife with cheesy platitudes, Irreplaceable You is redeemed in parts by its very honest portrayal of the devastation that cancer can cause. Yet often these scenes of dreary reality are overshadowed with (way too many) cuts to the characters looking at the sunset or happily laughing together. Often these cuts remove you from the grim realities of cancer and you are reminded again that you need to be putting on your rose-tinted glasses. Irreplaceable You doesn’t want you to forget it’s still a romance film at heart.
With this said, Irreplaceable You is the first film within this sub-genre that I have seen that explores anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is described as a reaction to impending loss, usually with the news of soon losing a loved one to terminal illness. Irreplaceable You explores anticipatory grief from the perspective of Abbie, a young professional who received the devastating news that she has late stage cancer. Abbie tries to comfort herself by organising and planning her fiance’s life behind his back. I can’t help but empathise with Abbie as she tries to make light of her situation, by making jokes and setting up dating profiles, trying to find Sam prospective partners. This fresh take on the terminal romance story makes for interesting viewing, but even with this minor redemption the film certainly has it’s faults.
The cast of Irreplaceable You is undeniably intriguing. Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Michiel Huisma play Abbie and Sam, the inseparable onscreen couple. Their chemistry is wonderful and alive with flirty yet subtle contentment. The cancer support group boasts Steve Coogan, who plays the group therapist and works as a presence of calm in the wake of depressed members struggling to come to terms with their shortened lifespan. Kate McKinnon offers mild laughs and momentary relief for audiences to recover from the darker moods of the film as a fellow cancer sufferer. Overall though, I must say the absolute saint of Irreplaceable Me comes in the form of Christopher Walken, the “terminal” friend that Abbie makes along her journey. Walken’s character, Myron, acts as Abbie’s guardian angel and confidante, providing a voice of reason that guides Abbie to be honest, truthful and most importantly not to waste the time she has left.
With the above things being said, I can’t help but think that together the cast could have been so much more. Coogan and McKinnon, known for their illustrious comedic presences, actually fall short in so many ways. Coogan with his straight-talking character is nothing more than a buffer for conversations, simply to fill in between more interesting dialogue. McKinnon fails to render a decent laugh even at her character’s most present scenes. As a seemingly obvious choice for a comedic trio, Coogan, McKinnon and Walken should have been offering amusing intervals throughout, but instead, their shared screen time was actually all too often dull and lifeless, leading me to wonder if they were partly wasted on Irreplaceable You.
Overall, Irreplaceable You isn’t very noteworthy. It is another “cancer romance” with the winning formula to make you cry. Even with its predictable cliches, and two-dimensional supporting characters, if you like heartbreaking romances, I suppose I would recommend a watch. Irreplaceable You is still a fascinating look into the fears and concerns a person may experience if they were to be diagnosed with a terminal illness. Although, without exploring anticipatory grief, Irreplaceable You would have just been added to the list of almost identical cancer romance films. As you can see, I feel very 50/50 (see what I did?) about Irreplaceable You. So if you intend to watch this film, don’t expect anything shockingly original, but do have the tissues at the ready, if you’re a softy like me then you’ll need an entire box.