“I am not a thief.” When recently paroled Dennis writes these words, he believes them. And defiantly sticks them to the window of the house where his estranged wife lives. He’s going straight. But life is never that simple, is it?
Director Phil Morrison follows up his previous “Junebug” with the holiday-set black comedy “All Is Bright.” Paul Giamatti stars as Dennis, released after four years in stir only to find that his wife Therese (Amy Landecker) has taken up with his ex-partner, Rene (Paul Rudd). Rene and Therese are going to get married, she says. Even worse, Therese has told their young daughter that Dennis is dead (“a really crappy form of cancer”). There’s no work in the Quebec district where his heartless parole officer says he must stay, so Dennis horns in on Rene’s current gig, hauling Christmas trees across the border to New York City to sell them on the street.
Unadorned and patient, this is certainly not a holiday film you’re going to see on the Hallmark Channel anytime soon. The settings look lived-in, down but not quite out, like the people in them. The photography is deliberately muted and gray. Tapping into the economic jitters so prevalent today, Dennis and Rene are living in that place where want waits in line behind need, and shady dealings are the coin of the realm.
But that makes it sound like kind of a downer. Not true. Within its modest, perceptive scale, Morrison prods the narrative along gracefully, with a keen eye for off-beat, wry detail and bleakly humorous moments. The tone is greatly helped along by Graham Reynolds’ melancholy music score, reminiscent but not derivative of Vince Guaraldi’s holiday jazz.
Giamatti has a particular skill with portrayals of underdogs and well-meaning losers, and Dennis might be his finest work since his much-lauded turn in “Sideways.” Sporting some ferocious mutton-chops and a hooded, hunted look in his eyes, Dennis is driven both by his neglected connection to the daughter he has (perhaps) lost, and by a raging sense of life’s basic injustice, a rage only barely kept in check. Giamatti provides no glib answers or easy hooks in Dennis, only the realistic behaviors of a wounded man struggling against his own instincts. He doesn’t want to believe he’s a thief, but he’ll also do what he has to do. You may not like Dennis much by the end, but you understand him, and maybe even hurt for him a little.
Rudd has often been a likeably bland presence in previous films, but he seems to have found a spark in working with Giamatti. He plays Rene as a dim, kinder, only-a-coin-flip-away version of Dennis, living in the margins like him but somehow able to hold onto a brighter outlook on life’s chances. They make an interesting duo, striking sparks in novel ways, and Rudd’s phony Quebecois salesman patter is a hoot.
The unpretentious script by Melissa James Gibson consistently takes us in small, fresh directions, and is fleshed out by peripheral characters with just the right amount of presence. Dennis’ relationship with an acerbic but kind housemaid (deftly played by Sally Hawkins) seems to be headed one way, but ends in a different, truer place. When Dennis and Rene’s partnership finally spills into the heated argument that’s been brewing since that punch in the face in the first reel, it still feels genuine and in the moment, even with two teenage patrons kibbitzing along as the men shout and badger and rationalize.
Late in the film, there is a remarkably effective scene, where Denis phones his wife from one of the few payphones left in New York. In a voice choked with that end-of-my-rope desperation that Giamatti does better than anyone, he heart-rendingly tries to describe a phony scene of romantic snowfall, over the strident objections of the collect-call operator. There’s no snow in sight, no pretty lights, and not a lot of hope, but he tries to rise above anyway. “All IS Bright” says that finding a way to keep trying, to keep reaching for something better in yourself, is where the real wonder of the season resides.
The Blu-ray edition of “All Is Bright” is a 1080p widescreen presentation, with a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. The muted color scheme is kept in tact, with the spare moments of bright color or light popping nicely. There is an option for English SDH and Spanish subtitles. Code is included for an Ultraviolet digital copy of the film.
The audio track is Dolby TrueHD 5.1. I enjoyed the balance between music and dialogue, and the location sound is well-handled throughout.
Disappointingly, there are no extras to speak of, not even a theatrical trailer.
Phil Morrison’s modest follow-up to “Junebug” is a winning, darkly humorous study of life in the holiday margins, with great performances by Paul Giamatti and Paul Rudd.