It’s only 36 days until Christmas.
That get your attention! I knew it would. The holiday season is almost upon us and with it come the various types of Christmas-themed films to fill you with festive cheer. But not all movies about Christmas are jingle bells and holly. Some use Christmas as a backdrop for the real story they’re trying to tell. Comedies, dramas, films about redemption, you name it. All have used Christmas as a device in their films that are generally about something else. In the case of All is Bright, the new film from director Phil Morrison and starring Paul Giamatti and Paul Rudd, Christmas is an integral part of the plot without being the main focus. A character piece that mixes comedy and drama, this new film might not necessarily get you in the Christmas spirit but instead serves as a window into the human condition and the struggles of making up for the sins of one’s past. And there’s Christmas Trees…..lots of ’em. When I sat down to watch All is Bright, I thought I was in store for a hard edged comedy but instead got something more.
Paul Giamatti plays Dennis, an ex-con from Quebec who’s just got out after serving time for a botched robbery. When he gets back to his home, he finds that it’s no longer his to come home to. His daughter believes that he’s dead. His wife has divorced him and is now dating his “best” friend Rene (Rudd). Penniless and desperate, Dennis is in need of a job and a new shot at life, two things that are apparently not easy to find. He ends up convincing Rene to let him join him on his trip down to New York for the month, selling Christmas Trees in an abandoned lot in Brooklyn. During this time, the two must deal with the bad blood between them while trying to make a quick buck off of pines and furs. Also starring, Sally Hawkins as Olga, a Russian housekeeper who works for rich dentists and befriends Dennis, All is Bright is essentially a film about second chances and finding out what matters most in life.
The marketing of this film is a bit odd because it makes it out to be a buddy comedy which couldn’t be further from the truth. The movie is more in line with Phil Morrison’s previous film Junebug. While it has elements of comedy, this more a character driven drama. Giamatti’s Dennis has many highs and lows and the audience accompanies him on his journey. A great deal of focus is given to both his and Rudd’s performances and there is a strength to the story because of it. We learn a great deal about these characters during the 107 minute running time and at the end, two very real, very familiar people emerge. Seeing as we spend 100% of the film with Giamatti and a good portion of that time with Rudd, this is a very good thing. Both actors take the weight of the piece and give it the gravitas that is necessary without making anything feel too heavy for the audience to handle. They’re both natural and you can see where each character is coming from. This rightly culminates in the third act as a new plot point is introduced and doesn’t feel forced or out of character for either Dennis or Rene. If only they didn’t say “aboot” so much.
While the performances of Rudd and Giamatti are great, they both play up the Canadian element to their characters a little too much. Aside from Rene’s decision to pretend to be Quebecois to help move some trees (which I did find kind of funny), both actors lean a bit too much into the Canadian accent to the point where it almost sounds comical. I know that some of us actually do sound like that but it felt a bit odd as I’ve seen tons of Canadian films that do not push the accent this far. But that’s just a small gripe with the film. Another gripe I have is that Sally Hawkins, our leading lady who’s also doing an accent, gives a bit of an uneven performance. At times she feels like she’s bringing the same believability that Giamatti and Rudd are sporting and then at others appears to be phoning it in. There’s a few scenes that feel like she’s too busy trying to sound Russian to be emotionally involved in the moment. These moments are thankfully few and do not take too much away from the film.
I do feel the film could’ve also benefited from tighter editing. With a running time of 107 minutes, they could’ve dropped a few minutes here and there and gotten the picture in at around 90 minutes, giving a much leaner, faster film and still not lose the emotional impact that Morrison was going for. Thankfully, while a little too long, the characters and story keep you engaged in the film.
Watching All is Bright was like getting into a cinematic time machine of sorts and traveling back to the mid nineties when low budget, character driven pieces like this one were the critical darlings of the video store. It’s a very lo fi production that sports high quality in it’s performance and storytelling. I can honestly say that I was not expecting this film to be so satisfying. Even though it might not put Christmas at the forefront, the movie does a great job of presenting the themes of peace on earth and good will towards men in a very real and relatable way. I strongly recommend you check out All is Bright and consider making it a part of your “Countdown to Christmas” traditions.
If you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!