‘A Good Person’ Puts Florence Pugh Through Hell

A GOOD PERSON (2023) - Credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures
A GOOD PERSON (2023) - Credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

It’s a rite of passage for actors, especially of a certain age, to play an addict. Drugs, alcohol, pills, anything you might chug or snort or shoot in an unhealthy, pain-numbing fashion — the specific substance or substances they’re abusing will vary. But for stage and screen performers (especially screen performers), it’s a challenge that allows them to play the emotional scales: anger, sadness, buzzed-out bliss, sickness, health, self-pity, self-acceptance, and/or self-destruction. Do it well, and you can plumb the depths of the human soul. Do it really well, and one day you may be able to graduate to playing an addict’s long-suffering parent.

A Good Person gives Florence Pugh — Oscar nominee, greatest-actor-of-her-generation contender, first-rate ugly crier, top model of floral sacrificial garments, and Grade-A thrower of on-set shade — her chance at going for the addict-melodrama gold. Pugh’s character, Allison, has it all, from a handsome fiancé named Nathan (Chinaza Uche) to a good job pitching pharmaceuticals to lots of friends In South Orange, New Jersey, who genuinely appreciate her impromptu piano recitals at dinner parties. Then Allison is involved in an accident. Tragedy and trauma ensue. One year later, she’s cutting her own hair via a social-media influencer video, which is never a good sign. Of course this means she’s hooked on OxyContin.

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And this is where Miss Flo starts her journey through the addiction-melodrama stations of the cross, ticking each off one by one. Allison will become agitated and angry when she’s unable to re-up her prescription, and tell her mom (Molly Shannon) that she hates her. Eyes dark-circled, she will bike down residential streets and glare with extreme determination. Allison will attempt to blackmail an old coworker, and debase herself in front of the “Jersey trash” she knew back in high school, as they will now help her score Oxy. (A painkiller that a dirtbag dealer, played by Alex Wolff, calls “heroin in a pretty dress.” This is the best line in the film.)

She will vomit in places where one was not meant to vomit, and later wake up on the bathroom floor, confused and ashamed. Daniel (Morgan Freeman, really dialing up the Morgan Freemanity to 10 here), who Allison knew from her life before the accident, will help her get to meetings and, as a recovering alcoholic, offer 12-step mentorship. She will attempt to make amends, notably to Daniel’s granddaughter Ryan (Celeste O’Connor), for reasons pertaining to the previously mentioned tragedy. There will be tearful confessions and temporary glimpses of stability, detox tossing and turning, relapses and wake-up calls. You know the drill.

This is the part where we tell you that the writer-director behind this tale of PTSD and pill-popping and personal demons is Zach Braff. We’d been purposefully avoiding this fact, as there’s a good chance that you already have feelings regarding the former Scrubs star and filmmaker going into this. You either think Garden State is the second coming of The Graduate or find it to be grating to the Nth degree — there are no in-betweens with his 2004 dramedy. (Maybe you once recommended that film to somebody by saying, “You gotta see this one movie, it’ll change your life, we swear.” We do not judge you.) Any viewer familiar with his work behind the camera know what they’ll be in for before they see a single frame, though the hope is that the gravity of the topic may add some grit to his penchant for earnestness and easy-target emotional hand-wringing. Then you hear Freeman’s opening narration about the healing power of model train sets, followed by both a score of maudlin piano tinkling and sensitive-guy indie rock, and say, how long is this movie exactly?

It bears mentioning that Braff and Pugh were once an item, something which the internet had no shortage of opinions about and would normally be besides the point in a review like this. Except the writer-director has gone on record about writing this for his then-romantic partner, which makes perfect sense. Because A Good Person isn’t about drug addiction, or grief, or second chances, or the messy business of putting your life back together after it’s been shattered into a million tiny pieces. Not really. It’s all about someone giving a muse a showcase for her talents, a chance to strut and fret upon a stage and maybe add to a highlight reel in the process. It would be obvious if he hadn’t admitted this fact. This is not a movie. It’s a mash note.

Not that Pugh phones in any of her wailing and thrashing and clawing her way back to sobriety, or doesn’t 100-percent commit to what she’s doing onscreen. She will not let this character turn into a Manic Pixie Pill Junkie, even when you can feel A Good Person gently (or not-so-gently) nudging her in that direction. Pugh has a way of reminding you why a close-up is the single best gift the moving pictures have given us, as well as somehow making her reactions to a lot of melodramatic business seem organic. That’s always been her gift, and it’s on display here as well.

You don’t blame Braff for wanting to craft a movie around her. But you can blame him for the movie itself that surrounds that performance, as well as a seriously ludicrous climax — one of several — set in a Williamsburg house party and a coda so self-aggrandizingly lachrymose that you’ll have to resist the urge to scream. You can get more potent, far better fixes of the actor’s work here, here, or even, god have mercy on our soul, here. Consider this a Pugh-blic service announcement.

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