All Is Bright
Director : Phil Morrison
Screenplay : Melissa James Gibson
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2013
Stars : Paul Giamatti (Dennis), Paul Rudd (Rene), Sally Hawkins (Olga), Amy Landecker (Therese), Tatyana Richaud (Michi), Adam Phillips (Antoine), Michael Drayer (Bobby), Colman Domingo (Nzomo), Halley Feiffer (Claire), Nikki M. James (Betsy), Gordon Joseph Weiss (Blind Guy)
One of the late Roger Ebert’s greatest contributions to film criticism was his “Stanton-Walsh Rule,” which proclaimed that “no movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad.” I feel the same way about Paul Giamatti in either a supporting or a lead role, and I offer All Is Bright as a prime example of a relatively lackluster dark comedy that is elevated several notches by Giamatti’s cantankerous presence as Dennis, a recently paroled career thief who discovers that his bitter ex-wife Therese (Amy Landecker) has told their young daughter that he died (painfully) of cancer and is now involved with his former, now-straight partner, Rene (Paul Rudd). The plot revolves around Dennis forcing his way into Rene’s latest money-earning scheme, which involves purchasing a truckload of Christmas trees in their native Quebec and then selling them on the streets of New York City.
With his brushy, unkempt beard, sad-sack eyes, and perpetual slouch, Giamatti’s Dennis fits neatly into the actor’s long line of fringe-dwelling characters who various obsessions, insecurities, and fits of anger that keep them perpetually separated from those around them. Giamatti has a special way of making misanthropy and depression both endearing and biting, and Dennis represents a particularly angry subset of his stock characterization. The film’s funniest moments tend to involve his wild-eyed response to an insult or indignity (either real or imagined), especially when Therese informs him through the kitchen widow via a notepad that their daughter thinks he’s dead. It’s a morose narrative turn of events, but Giamatti’s blistering response—“Why!?!?—cuts through the surface morbidity and plumbs darkly humorous depths that probably only he could pull off. He and Rudd make an interesting, albeit not entirely effective, comic duo, as Rudd plays up his character’s genial sense of dim-bulbery while Giamatti glowers, paces, and worries.
Ironically, though, it is not just Giamatti that keeps All is Bright from sinking into mediocrity, as the film is arguably stolen time and again by Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky), who plays a Olga, a rough-edged Russian maid who befriends Dennis for reasons fathomable only to her. With a thick accent and an endearingly awkward sense of physicality, Hawkins makes Olga into a truly unique character whose generosity and sense of purpose seem to derive from a life of hard living; she recognizes desperation when she sees it, which is perhaps why she takes pity on Dennis and helps him.
Director Phil Morrison (Junebug) manages to dig up a few laughs from the otherwise bleak material (contrary to the purposefully ironic title, all is definitely not bright), but the script by Melissa James Gibson seems stuck in neutral, setting up a potentially interesting situation and then doing not that much with it. If the idea of two characters on a dingy New York street corner feuding and selling Christmas trees is your idea of a good time, All is Bright will probably hold some appeal for you, especially if you recognize that the film would be that much less without Giamatti in it.
Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick
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