Called “Almost Christmas” during the Tribeca 2013 FIlm Festival, the movie has now been retitled, “All Is Bright.”
Director Phil Morrison hasn’t made a film since his exceptional debut indie, “Junebug,” which launched Amy Adams in 2005. Brimming with life, even without the Oscar-nominated and very-worthy firecracker Adams performance, the movie is flush with an idiosyncratic humanity and especially complex and uniquely written characters. However, his long belated follow-up, “Almost Christmas,” arriving some eight years after his auspicious beginning possesses little traces of the spark that made “Junebug” so special.
In fact, his sophomore effort “Almost Christmas,” centered around two French Canadian friends trying to make some dough in New York, is a mostly lifeless affair and a big misfire for Morrison. Impassively paced, lacking a forward narrative engine and nowhere near as fun or comical as it should be, the picture even lacks dynamic chemistry between the otherwise, usually effervescent Paul Rudd and Paul Giamatti. “Almost Christmas” has little rudder either and apart from a few worthwhile scenes, is sadly enervating.
Giamatti stars as the misanthropic low-level ex-con Dennis, fresh from a four year prison stint . He comes home to his wife Therese (Amy Landecker) who has told their young daughter that Dennis died of cancer, and finds that she’s now in love with his best friend and former partner in crime Rene (Rudd). Angered and dumbstruck, Therese pleads with Dennis not to reveal to their daughter that he is still alive. Reluctantly, and without many options, Dennis agrees. But without a home or employment, the ex-criminal desperately needs to get a job and support himself and his probation officer isn’t any help.
Dennis comes to Rene, plants a fist in his face and then tells him he owes him for this betrayal (though seemingly the money is more important and the true anger comes later). Dennis needs a job and so Rene brings him along to replace his partner in the delivering-Christmas-trees-to-New-York operation that he is running.
Setting up shop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, it’s soon clear to Dennis that Rene has no clue what he’s doing and their Christmas tree operation is a bust. The two men and their misadventures could add up to a “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”-esque journey, but if only the film were that delicious and arch. Instead, ‘Christmas’ is an often inert “Waiting For Godot” without the wit and bite; two hapless men, waiting around for people to buy Christmas trees from them without many conflicts to keep things interesting. While ostensibly a character piece without need for the melodramatic, the inoffensive script simply isn’t interesting enough to sustain these two men waiting for success to come to them. They threaten the competition, and eventually get their act together (sort of), but the stakes are incredibly low in the movie. One resonating emotional moment comes when Dennis resolves to buy his musical daughter a piano for Christmas. It gives him motivation and purpose, but it almost arrives too late and out of nowhere. Rene is determined to marry Therese if his ex-wife will grant him a divorce, and this causes friction between the odd couple friends. Especially when Rene isn’t the most thoughtful and attentive partner and Dennis is still completely in love.
And there’s a dynamic here that’s never fully explored as comedically or emotionally as it should be. One best friend steals the wife of another and while there’s tension there, it’s never used as dramatically as it should be. Dennis has to unenthusiastically suffer this circumstance if he wants to make some money, but there’s little pride involved and this often strains credulity, even in this little comedy.
Semi-miscast is Sally Hawkins as a Russian dental assistant who befriends Dennis for what aren’t very strong reasons outside of perhaps pity and curiosity (and perhaps loneliness). Housesitting her dentist’s office while they are away on Christmas vacation, she invites Dennis in after she buys a tree and then occasionally feeds and clothes him. Credit to the script for not taking the obvious route and making their dynamic a romantic one, and while her presence has purpose — ostensibly to give Dennis character some hope and connection among his miserable situation — their relationship never quite coalesces either.
Aesthetic choices don’t help. Perhaps trying to invoke the spirit of French Canada, the cinematography looks as it has a pork and beans with beer filter on it the entire time and looks oppressively drab. The misguided score is also a combination of listless jazzy riffs on Christmas tunes and goofy-sounding elevator music. More importantly, the music never helps give the film the momentum and drive it so desperately needs, instead, lackadaisically fading in here and there.
“Almost Christmas” admittedly does end well, finally connecting emotionally and dramatically, but by this point, it’s a little too late. Semi-flat with only a few jokes and emotional beats that land, the picture is often dull when it should be poignant. Giamatti does his best with the material and occasionally even delivers a moving moment, but the film is mostly lacking from inspired sequences. Outwardly about friendship, family, and the desire to be loved, “Almost Christmas” doesn’t provide enough poignant commentary about any of these themes until the final act. And again, by then, for this uneven 107 minute film (which feels about two hours long), it’s far too late.
Interesting ideas and moments live somewhere within “Almost Christmas,” but they mingle around instead of truly consolidating. Phil Morrison is still a filmmaker we hope doesn’t have to wait another eight years to make another feature, but this sophomore effort sadly isn’t the one you’ve been waiting for. [C]