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A comedy about Canadian lowlifes played by Pauls Rudd and Giamatti coming down to NYC at Christmas to peddle trees sounds like a twee Sundance entry circa Happy Texas and/or something Rudd would've starred in during that post-Clueless/pre 40-Year-Old Virgin decade. But if you listen to the sound design of Almost Christmas, you might make out the style of Junebug writer-director Phil Morrison: he's still paying special attention to overheard conversations and ambient near-silence, even if the movie is more of an amusing trifle than a striking slice of life.
Giamatti's irritable ex-con gets out of prison to find out that his wife has told their young daughter he's dead, a sorta-joke screenwriter Melissa James Gibson likes so much that she repeats it five or six times. His wife's new boyfriend, played by Rudd, agrees to take him on his yearly tree-selling pilgrimage—a get-briefly-slightly-rich-semi-quick scheme. The pair's quasi-in-law relationship is just one aspect of Almost Christmas that parallels fellow Tribeca feature Prince Avalanche, another uneasy-buddy/menial-labor comedy with Rudd. His Avalanche character has more depth, but he does get some of the biggest laughs here with his easygoing enthusiasm. (On his martial-arts training: "Guess which kind of mythology it's based on. Norse!")
With reworked instrumentals of holiday tunes serving (and sometimes over-serving) as a score, Almost Christmas has an agreeable Charlie Brown vibe. It's always an odd fit to watch a Christmas movie in springtime, but I assume this one made the Tribeca cut because it gets its New York bona fides right—and I'm not just saying that because about three quarters of it takes place in my neighborhood; I'm also saying that because at one point it features Santa-Con revelers carousing and hurling, uncommented upon, in the background. These details make it compatible with Morrison's considerable skills, but I left Almost Christmas unsure of why he wanted to make it. He keeps the movie from going full indie-comedy autopilot but doesn't steer it too far afield, either. Jesse Hassenger
Screens Sunday. More info here.