' ' Cinema Romantico: All Is Bright

Monday, December 23, 2013

All Is Bright

Each year during the holidays I like to embrace my inner-whimsy and take a stroll on Michigan Avenue amidst the shoppers and buy a cup of coffee and watch the skaters down at Millenium Park. This year, though, a funny thing happened. While I was minding my own business, watching the skaters, listening to Lindi Ortega’s Christmas EP on my iPod, a couple girls asked if I might take their picture in front of The Bean. So I did. That prompted a couple to ask if I might take their picture in front of The Bean. So I did. That prompted another couple to ask if I might take their picture in front of The Bean and then in front of the ice rink. So I did. That prompted a couple other girls to ask…… You get the drift. All in all, I must have taken two dozen photos of different people simply because I was the one idiot hanging out down there by himself. Finally I just had to grab my cup of coffee and jet.

But then another funny thing happened. I found another place in the park, a place away from the ice rink and The Bean and all the people, and it was quiet and the snow was falling and somehow downtown Chicago looked like old world Chicago, like at any second Michigan Avenue might start crawling with Model T’s and dudes in fedoras might pop up every which way and a drunken Daisy Buchanan might stumble by. It was so strangely serene, such a wonderful reminder of the eerie solitude a city can sometimes provide amidst so much bustle, I must have stood there for half-an-hour. And that’s when I returned in my mind to “All Is Bright”, a film I had seen nearly a month before but had been unable to put my finger on.

“All Is Bright”, Phil Morrison's long awaited followup to the stellar "Junebug", was released earlier this year, at some point, and slipped stealthily under the radar, a fact which seems extraordinarily appropriate because it’s an almost unbelievably quiet film. It’s about two ex-con Canucks, Dennis (Paul Giamatti) and Rene (Paul Rudd), who drive a truckload of Christmas trees across the border and into the heart of New York City where they set up a shoddy lot to hustle for cash. Rene wants to buy an engagement ring for his lady friend who happens to be Dennis’s ex-wife who told Dennis’s daughter that Dennis was dead since he’d been locked up for so long. This peeved Dennis, naturally, but he respects his own fake death and stays away, though he remains determined to scrounge up enough to buy his daughter a present for Christmas.

This could make for a tense relationship between the two, but it is not necessarily a tense film. Oh, there’s tension between Dennis and Rene, but that’s not the movie’s focus. Rather its focus is to peer into the cracks between ginormous plot developments and examine characters forced to just sit in a parking lot with a plethora of pine needles and stew about what their lives have become and fantasize about what they wish their lives could be. If ever there were a pair of losers, it’s these two, and yet, as we know, it was the shepherds who were told about the impending arrival of God’s newborn son. If we updated the nativity story to roll with the times, the angels would probably reveal themselves to Dennis and Rene.

Rudd talks a few city blocks a minute, generally about nothing, and thus Giamatti, positively irascible and a social cripple, is a perfect foil. He only seems at ease when he’s volatile, and then he quickly re-recedes within himself. Growing out a beard and his sideburns to lumberjack-esque proportions, Giamatti, who can often appear unpleased on film, appears even more unpleased than that, embodying the surliness of a man desiring to go straight and having to consistently fend off the desperate urge to crumble.

I’ve yet to mention one character. That is Olga, the no-gruff-taking Russian housesitter for a couple well-to-do Manhattan dentists we never see, played by Sally Hawkins less as a potential love interest for Giamatti’s sad-sack than an eastern European schoolmaster ordering him to sit up straight and get his shit together. Of course, her presence and specifically her presence within that sprawling Manhattan home of opulence, allows for a neon-lit invitation to Dennis to return to his life of crime.

You can probably guess what happens. But then Dennis can probably guess what happens too. That it is "expected" all along allows for it to loom over the entire film. It's not will he or won't he? It's, why will he? Maybe because he is who he is. Maybe to bring a little good cheer to his daughter on Christmas morning. Hey, who says those wise men didn't hijack that gold, frankincense and myrrh?


Ryan McNeil said...

And just when I thought I'd run out of Christmas films to watch this year - thanks for this!

Now would you mind taking a photo of me in front of the bean?

Derek Armstrong said...

Funny, I've seen and had my hand hovering above this movie on the video shelves here in Melbourne, but here it's called Almost Christmas. Guess now I've missed my window for this year.