Christmas movies come in two forms: happy, nostalgic celebrations of the season’s glad tidings and sour, caustic takedowns of the holiday’s forced warmth and merriment. All Is Bright is decidedly in the latter category. Its title a feint, All Is Bright submerges itself in melancholy, casting a compassionate eye over characters laid low by disappointing life choices that are amplified by the oncoming rush of Christmastime cheer. You laugh neither with nor at these people—you just hang on and hope their depression doesn’t bring you down with them.
This is the second film from director Phil Morrison, whose first, 2005’s Junebug, was a pitch-perfect mixture of comedy, drama and cultural observation. Beyond being a launching pad for then-little-known actress Amy Adams, Junebug was a precise study of red- and blue-state divide as witnessed in one family. All Is Bright is a very different kind of film, and far less successful. But once again Morrison permits his characters’ clear foibles to flower without condemnation. From his two movies, it seems apparent that he’s interested in the behavior of everyday people, wondering how they make peace with their failings. But where Junebug’s small story belied its grand themes, All Is Bright stays minuscule, never quite transcending its meager sadness.
The films stars Paul Giamatti, an ideal actor to play Dennis, who’s a nobody loser just released from prison after four years for a botched bank robbery. With his resigned eyes and schlumpy posture, Dennis returns to his home to discover that his wife, Therese (Amy Landecker), has told their young daughter that he’s dead and has fallen in love with Rene (Paul Rudd), Dennis’s good friend whose screw-up at the heist got Dennis arrested. Heartbroken and angry, Dennis needs a job, but in his small Canadian town work is hard to find—until, that is, Rene offers to help. The two men will drive into New York City and sell Christmas trees, which will require Dennis to spend a lot of time with the man who ruined his life.
All Is Bright spends most of its running time following Dennis and Rene as they try unsuccessfully to sell their trees after setting up shop in a particularly dingy section of Brooklyn. There’s a Waiting for Godot-like sense of futility to the men’s actions, with Giamatti and Rudd playing regular guys who got into crime, one suspects, because they were never particularly motivated or smart enough to do anything more productive. These characters aren’t so much dumb as they are unremarkable, but the actors don’t go out of their way to mock them. Giamatti supplies Dennis with his typical short-fuse temper, indicative of a man who has spent a long time trapped in a cell only to be let out and discover that everything in the outside world is even worse for him. By comparison, Rudd’s Rene is a sweet but also cowardly simpleton who keeps insisting that his upcoming marriage proposal to Dennis’s ex-wife isn’t a betrayal of the two men’s friendship.
Melissa James Gibson’s screenplay provides more atmosphere than it does plot—and the story it does have tends to be pretty predictable or not completely believable. That’s most apparent with the introduction of Olga (Sally Hawkins), a Russian maid with a thick accent who lives nearby and takes pity on the crestfallen Dennis. Hawkins brings a beaten-down orneriness to the role, but the character remains a construction, a writer’s idea of a colorfully eccentric outsider. Despite Morrison’s sympathetic approach to these sad-sack individuals, All Is Bright remains a tad pat throughout, its characters’ deep despondency imposed on them so strenuously that it begins to feel fabricated rather than organic. Misery may love company, especially during the holidays, but only if it feels authentic.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Phil Morrison
Writer: Melissa James Gibson
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Paul Rudd, Sally Hawkins, Amy Landecker, Peter Hermann, Emory Cohen
Release Date: Oct. 4, 2013