How can you go wrong with Paul Giamatti, Paul Rudd and Sally Hawkins, all tremendously gifted actors with combined successful track records that extend for years and a good number of miles? I never thought it would be possible, but the film All is Bright exemplifies what not to do with great talent: squander it on an indefinitely intentioned, hodgepodge of a screenplay with contrived characters, spare “laughs,” and inattention to plausible settings and situations. Have I touched upon the lackluster production values, not to mention the presumably ironic Christmas music that siphons any helium hope that this is a savvy, culturally current and trenchantly sardonic film?
Despite the film’s dimness (Was Director Phil Morrison attempting to be ironic about his film’s lack of possibilities?) Rudd and Giamatti come through as best they can, delivering believable and heartfelt performances as Rene (Rudd) and Dennis (Giamatti). They are thieves and former friends who live in Quebec, Canada. The film centers on their attempt to leave a life of crime by lying, breaking Dennis’ parole, crossing the Canadian border, driving to NYC (The setting is as implausibly conceived as their actions to cross the border in this age of hyper surveillance) bullying, and cheating to sell the trees. After his jail term, Dennis is on parole for theft, having been abandoned at the scene by Rene who has since “gone straight” and picked up with Dennis’ wife, Therese (Amy Landecker) and child, piano playing Michi (Tatyana Richaud). Therese told Michi that Dennis died of cancer. She prevents him from seeing his child. The callous hypocrisy of Therese now with Rene is replicated by Rene’s thoughtless disregard for Dennis’ feelings (Dennis did punch Rene in the face when he found out about the affair) when he talks to her on the phone throughout their tree selling escapade.
Both Giamatti and Rudd manage to rise above the contrived, contradictory, ill conceived plot and characterization. Giamatti has the lion’s share of producing the humanity of his character, but this is not the solid, beautifully adapted screenplay of Barney’s Version in which he elicited our sympathy and moved us to tears. We are never allowed that luxury in All Is Bright, which prefers to wander in abortive attempts at dark comedy and “broke, busted, down-and-out” disgusted rift. The script by Melissa James Gibson needed a longer incubation and rewriting phase. The film begs for tighter editing and greater focus on the weird dynamics of the prior relationship between Rene and Dennis, possibly showing their unfruitful and disastrous connection (Rene’s betrayal at the scene of the crime and later with Therese). This might have succeeded through flashbacks whose visuals would have been more powerful than lengthier dialogue exposition in reveals during the film.
Because the importance of their friendship and Rene’s betrayal is diffused, the powerful theme of their potential redemption and reconciliation becomes stultified. The spirit of Christmas redemption could be a salient centerpiece of the film but it is eaten away by the haphazard plot and rambling extraneous bits of flotsam. This aimlessness also vaporizes other essential themes of regret, loss, love, friendship, hypocrisy, expiation. Additionally, when Giamatti’s performance builds and draws us in, suddenly, we are whisked away by an ancillary plot thread. The fulness of the moment that could have touched us is disassembled. The result is a muddled effort in the name of avoiding the maudlin and heightening the comedic darkness which then falls flat. Should we have been allowed a few more moments to be sensitized? Yes. Giamatti, especially would have brought us to empathy. He is always interesting, always present, always imminently watchable; the dark, irony smashed in our faces would have been more nuanced and trenchant, the sardonic effect more humorous and resonant.
Ultimately, the underlying message of Christmas love and sacrifice is aborted. What honor or satisfaction can there be to give an expensive, stolen piano (invisible to border security) to Michi? If the director’s underlying concept was that this is all the economically struggling can expect, it is not adequately developed throughout to the conclusion. I’ll take O ‘Henry’s The Gift of the Magi.
If the project was not worthy of Giamatti’s talents or Rudd’s, who is always real, committed to the moment to moment spur that drives toward believability, Sally Hawkins’ forced impersonation of the Russian Olga (a characterization created to effect the implausible Steinway theft) is the highest example of squandering a brilliant talent. Hawkins is fun to watch, nevertheless.
The Blu-ray version has no extra assets. It is more of an afterthought. Even if Morrison and one of the actors had gotten together and discussed the film’s difficulties, situational implausibility and other details, it would have been an essential learning experience for avid film-goers and film students. Nevertheless, the Blu-ray version is worth seeing. It is valuable for examining a film with potential and fine acting but problematic script construction and disjointed execution. No. All is Bright’s elements do not pull together with seamless perfection. The effect is uneven. Figuring out how and why is important.