"All is Bright" — "All Is Bright" is a bit of holiday melancholy masquerading as black comedy.
"All Is Bright" is a bit of holiday melancholy masquerading as black comedy.
Paul Giamatti, Paul Rudd and Sally Hawkins star in this sweet, sad tale of thieves and other lost causes tangled up in a Brooklyn Christmas tree lot one very cold December.
The film begins in rural Quebec, where Dennis (Giamatti) has been released from prison after four years served for attempted robbery. And a poor attempt it was, given that the target was a safe in need of cracking and Dennis' partner, Rene (Rudd) the safecracker, had second thoughts and didn't show.
Fate and parole restrictions conspire to put the two in league with each other again. Love of the same good woman, Therese (Amy Landecker), has both trying to go almost straight, selling bootleg Christmas trees in the big city. Rene has a spot he favors, a corner lot with the discards of New York's economic decay piled high.
To all of this grit, director Phil Morrison applies a light touch, as does writer Melissa James Gibson, whose script is marked by a dry, at times withering wit. The film is rather rough and seedy as holiday fables go, and quite often the ideas and characters are only half baked. But somehow, Giamatti and Hawkins, in particular, make the watching a little brighter, the bitter a little sweeter. It's the gift of good actors helping the scraggliest of Christmas tales.
The alliance between the former crooks is not an easy one. The newly released man walked a long way in the snow to get home, only to find the door closed. In addition to losing his wife to his best friend, there is Michi (Tatyana Richaud), the 7-year-old daughter whom Dennis adores.
Watching Dennis watch Michi through a window as she pretends to practice scales on the carpet — a piano is far beyond Therese's means — tells us all we need to know about what is driving every decision Dennis will make over the course of the film, right and wrong.
He makes both, sometimes in anger, sometimes in love. Gruff and short-fused enough in Giamatti's hands, Dennis keeps any sympathy for the devil at bay. The role feels like a slight departure for the actor. Dennis is not as smart nor as likable as the characters we've seen Giamatti play in films like "Sideways," and he's even sketchier than the actor's boxing manager in "Cinderella Man," which earned Giamatti an Oscar nomination.
One particular woman in the market for a Christmas tree — pragmatic, opinionated and demanding Olga (Hawkins) — is there to put things in perspective. She is minding a lux Brooklyn brownstone for her boss and bears the wounds of growing up in Eastern Europe as deeply as the accent that flavors her speech. One of Britain's underappreciated acting treasures, Hawkins handles Olga's dark history like a low-grade fever, dismissive of hard times in ways that make her toughness appealing.
The tree Olga settles on sets much in motion, starting with the complications of its delivery. It also lifts the entire mood of the film. I wouldn't say it's a festive shift exactly, but you do feel a new lightness in the air.
It's needed. The corner Christmas tree business is cutthroat. There's a lot of pressure to move the trees and only a few days to do it. Dennis and Rene live like squatters on the lot, slipping into a diner to use the facilities. Competition in the form of nice folks from Vermont across the street sets Dennis off. If we've forgotten he's a criminal, he reminds us.
Still, Rene is responsible for most of the turmoil. Rudd plays him as rough around the edges, but otherwise he's the basic decent sort we've come to expect. Yet the character never feels as organic to the story as it should, showing up and dropping out sporadically, as if the filmmakers don't quite know what to do with him.
As Christmas draws nearer, business picks up and the men begin to change, both searching for grand gestures that will win over Therese.
Giamatti and Hawkins hold sway with this weirdly sentimental story. No schmaltz, no tears, but something that looks like compassion passes between them. Cinematographer W. Mott Hupfel III ("The Savages") and the production and set design teams keep things gritty, cold and uncomfortable.
In its own strange way, "All Is Bright" pulls you in even as it frustrates. This is far from a picture-perfect Christmas story, mind you, but there is a spirit in its celebration of disappointment that is quite special.
'All Is Bright'
MPAA rating: R for language and brief nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: At AMC Burbank 8