Review: 'All Is Bright' (But Not Particularly Interesting)

All Is Bright

Does anyone reading this know Paul Rudd? Can you give him a call and make sure he's feeling okay? His script choices of late have left me feeling a little concerned.

Not that he's suddenly lost his senses or anything. It's just that between last month's Prince Avalanche and the new All Is Bright -- both of which find Rudd playing a tortured soul far from home on a thankless work gig that forces him to spend almost all of his time with a person he kind of can't stand -- it's tempting to wonder if he's trying to tell us something about his current outlook on life.

These are the types of things a person's liable to think while watching All Is Bright, a thoroughly competent and passionately acted two-hander about a recently paroled convict named Dennis (Paul Giamatti) who leaves prison only to find that his wife (Amy Landecker) has not only told their daughter that he's dead, but moved on with his old buddy Rene (Rudd), who says he's going to ask her to marry him as soon as his current wife will grant him a divorce.

That's a pretty bum deal, and there's something truly moving about the way Giamatti handles his character's predicament; in All Is Bright's quieter moments, you see a man struggling to determine whether it's feasible -- or even worth it -- to hold onto his own dignity in a world where his mistakes have ravaged his opportunities so badly that he's been left to scrounge for quarters on the sidewalk after napping in his daughter's playhouse. Dennis is a sad character in a sad, snowy Canadian town, stuck in an economy so sad that his parole officer suggests he try to "live off the land" rather than bother looking for a job. It's awful, and because any thinking adult understands how quickly our fortunes can turn, Giamatti's sensitive, (mostly) restrained performance could lend a different kind of movie on the subject some truly painful gravitas.

But All Is Bright is not that movie. It's actually a queer sort of hybrid between a desperately serious socioeconomic drama and the sort of sugar-frosted small-town character study that works under the right circumstances (Nobody's Fool, Beautiful Girls) but can be awfully cloying and/or dull under the wrong ones. After Dennis bullies Rene into taking him on as his second man for a monthlong journey into New York City to sell Christmas trees, the movie starts to stagger between flashes of dark brilliance -- like the scene where Dennis is strongarmed out of a diner where Rene's told him he can use the restroom -- and long, dry stretches of Giamatti and Rudd sniping at each other in their dingy tree lot. It gets pretty boring after awhile.

Part of the problem is that there's no real arc here for any of the characters. Dennis would love to turn back the clock and put his broken family back together, but what makes him so compelling as a character -- and ultimately gives screenwriter Melissa James Gibson fits -- is that he knows he can't. He's furious and heartbroken, but there's nowhere for him to put those emotions when he isn't venting them at Rene; all that's left is for him to forge a fortuitous friendship with one of their customers (Sally Hawkins) and sort of amble his, and the movie's, way to a strange and frankly rather nasty conclusion. You don't feel like anyone's better off at the end of this film, and none of the characters seem to have learned much of anything. It's just a dark interlude in their lives that ends with a sigh and a shrug.

If nothing else, All Is Bright benefits from the strong work of its impressive cast -- it's just that, like the recent Jayne Mansfield's Car, you can't help wishing they were given something more worthwhile to do. Kudos to director Phil Morrison for making a Christmas movie that has the guts to really make you feel cold inside -- but all things being equal, I'd rather watch National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation again.

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About Jeff Giles

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Jeff is an entertainment writer and editor whose work currently appears at a variety of sites, including Rotten Tomatoes, Paste, American Songwriter, Popdose, Dadnabbit, Diffuser, and Ultimate Classic Rock.

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