By Caryn James | James on Screens September 25, 2013 at 9:05AM
An offbeat, affecting little dark comedy, All is Bright was called Almost Christmas when it was shown at the last Tribeca Film Festival. Luckily, nothing has changed except for the less blatantly seasonal new title. Paul Giamatti and Paul Rudd play down-on-their-luck Canadians who come to New York to live in a camper and sell Christmas trees for a month, trailing a fraught personal connection.
Their emotional undercurrent accounts for the film's darkness: Dennis (Giamatti), a small-time thief who has just been released from prison, learns that his former best friend and partner, Rene (Rudd), has gone straight. Worse, Rene is engaged to Dennis' ex-wife. Oh, and the ex-wife has told their daughter that her father is dead. Not a typical cheery little Christmas movie, but its mordant humor eventually becomes joyful (within reason) instead of depressing.
This is the second feature directed by Phil Morrison, and while the setting is radically different from the North Carolina of his 2005 film, Junebug, the film displays a similar close observation of distinctive characters. Rene still acts like Dennis's old friend, hoping that's true despite having usurped his family. Dennis is hurt, resentful, yet indebted to Rene for giving him work -- and he is unexpectedly practical at the Christmas-tree game.
Giamatti and Rudd make this seem effortless. Only Sally Hawkins, so good in Blue Jasmine and many other films, seems artificial as a Russian housekeeper who befriends Dennis and helps him clean up (actually clean up; he needs a shower). Everything about the character, from her accent to her unstylish clothes, seems to exist for strained comic effect.
Written by Melissa James Gibson, a playwright and also a writer for the smart FX drama The Americans, All is Bright is more sly than laugh-out-loud, which suits its modest scale and ambiguous relationships. And there are some perfect little touches. Rudd is given a brown tooth. The score is an appealing mix of jazz-inflected Christmas carols.
It's just as well that the film is not arriving at Christmastime, when audiences expect sugary holiday treats. All is Bright is unsugary, a small out-of-season miracle.
The film is now on VOD and opens in theaters On Oct. 4th.