All is Bright
Directed by Phil Morrison
It’s been a while since we’ve heard from Phil Morrison, whose 2005 debut feature, the returning-home character piece Junebug, rightly remains one of the aughts’ most fondly remembered American indies. This minor-key follow-up—which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last spring as Almost Christmas—stars Paul Giamatti and Paul Rudd as haggard small-time criminals taking a crack at an honest living: hawking Christmas trees in North Brooklyn, on a stretch of pavement in the long shadow of Manhattan’s sparkling skyline. Dennis (Giamatti) has just been released from prison to find former partner Rene (Rudd) planning a life with Dennis’s ex-wife and daughter. But, because it’s the only work he can find, and he wants to buy a piano for his daughter, Dennis nonetheless talks his way into Rene's (relatively) aboveboard tree-hauling scheme.
Just as Junebug charted a close-quarters collision of Northern and Southern values, there’s a baseline culture shock here as well: the main characters are Quebecois, eventually posing as hearty up-north lumberjacks to better market their Scotch pines to the Brooklyn clientele. Dennis and Rene spend their time just barely scraping by (scenes often accompanied by jazzy carols on the soundtrack), though Dennis’s first customer, the Russian motor mouth Olga (Sally Hawkins), begins to look out for him despite his continued thieving. (He steals any food he can get his hands on and threatens the Christmas-tree competition across the street with a saw before setting up shop.)
The odd-couple quarreling, as devised by writer Melissa James Gibson and sold by Giamatti and Rudd (capably inhabiting types on opposite ends of the con-man spectrum), has its moments, and the depiction of a wintry-mix Greenpoint, with its diverse foot traffic, keeps the film grounded. But there’s nothing particularly fresh about setting reflexive lowlife behavior against the season’s ostensible mood of gift-wrapped good cheer—on the whole, there’s not a lot to celebrate here.
Opens October 4