Director Phil Morrison has yet to make good on the promise of his 2005 debut feature, Junebug, a movie so charming and balanced that it was an unambitious meal of all the five basic tastes, bitter and sweet in plot, but also with the atmospheric touches of something deeply personal. It’s a shame then that his newest film, All Is Bright, feels totally bland, like the makings of a much better film that has been left unspiced.
Paul Giamatti stars as Dennis, a con fresh from prison on parole and finding that there’s nothing waiting for him on the outside. The economy sucks, his wife has left him for his former partner-in-crime, Rene (Paul Rudd), and his daughter thinks he’s dead. With no other options, Dennis teams up with Rene and the two head to New York from Quebec to sell a truckload of trees for a fast seasonal buck. Giamatti and Rudd are the acting equivalent of opposites: when playing it more or less straight, Giamatti overwhelms as his customary middle-aged grump, while Rudd disappears as cute and kind of stupid. Neither Paul delivers a bad performance, but they both lack elements of surprise.
Newness comes in the form of Sally Hawkins, Olga, a Russian who works for a family of dentists. Hawkins’s voice, usually thin and exhausted from excitement or sadness or both, here is steely and rich, and fully committed to an at times incomprehensible Russian accent. Olga’s appearances liven up the film’s dour proceedings considerably, and yet Morrison and screenwriter Melissa James Gibson know to use a good thing sparingly. Her initial appearance prompts the obvious option of a love interest for the down and out Dennis, but such expectations are pleasurably subverted, and each time Hawkins reappears it’s a treat.
But such pleasures are few and far between in All Is Bright, with little being made of either Quebec or New York as locales worth embellishing. Manhattan’s iconic skyline glitters off in the distance like their economic pipe dreams, but up close there’s only the generic pile of junk in the middle of a Brooklyn intersection where Dennis and Rene choose to hawk trees. Saccharine Christmas songs of joy haunt the soundtrack in complete ignorance of the visual joylessness, as if in post someone decided the film should be more of a Christmas movie. And while the music is incongruous, the impulse is right; there’s the backbone of a better film here, it just needs some ornaments.