‘All Is Bright’: Early Christmas cheer

October 2, 2013

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Paul Giamatti is one of our great screen actors, an absolute poet of frustration and regret with the range to play a wide variety of roles. Watch him in Tom McCarthy’s delightful “Win Win” and then in “Cold Souls” and then in “American Splendor.” He can play everything from enraged and dyspeptic to nurturing and witty.

He gets another chance to work the territory of the unhappy man trying to right the foundering ship that his life has become in “All Is Bright,” a small but thoroughly engaging dramatic comedy that teams him with his virtual opposite in temperament, Paul Rudd.

Giamatti plays Dennis, just out of a Canadian prison. His stint for breaking and entering, he discovers, has cost him his wife and child; even worse, his wife has taken up with his old partner in crime, Rene (Rudd), who has gone straight to make his new relationship work. Dennis is broke – but Rene has a job that will help him earn some cash in a hurry, legitimately.

They are taking a load of Christmas trees from Quebec to Brooklyn, where they will set up a corner stand. By the time Christmas rolls around, they’ll have a few thousand dollars each – enough for Dennis to buy his daughter the big gift he thinks will redeem him in his ex-wife’s eyes. (This, despite the fact that she’s told their child that, in fact, Dennis is dead.)

New York seems ready to get the best of these Canuck-accented interlopers. They’re living in a small camper and, just after Thanksgiving, business is slow. Even worse, someone else has set up shop selling trees across the street and is snaking most of their business.

But Dennis is nothing if not resourceful. And he gains a new ally: Olga (Sally Hawkins), the maid in a nearby brownstone. She befriends Dennis, visiting him regularly and offering tips on business, the neighborhood and life in general.

Not a lot happens in “All Is Bright”: Dennis and Rene sell trees, quibble among themselves, deal with the elements and, eventually, with rapidly increasing business which, as predicted, soars once Christmas becomes imminent. The plot turns are sometimes predictable, sometimes surprising – but this is more a story of character than plot, with Giamatti providing the strong center around which the film is built.

His expressive eyes flashing everything from triumph (rarely) to distemper, his Dennis is a desperately resourceful entrepreneur clinging to a thread of hope. One imagines him grasping at the same straw to gut his way through prison, the underdog who perpetually believes his luck is about to change, because he has to believe that to survive.

Rudd is his exact opposite, a guy seemingly born with a smile on his face. They clash and squabble, the semi-clueless optimist trying to impart some sunshine to a guy who carries around his own dark cloud. Hawkins is the counterweight, someone with an even shrewder and darker perspective than even this particular pair of criminals.

Written by Melissa James Gibson and directed by Phil Morrison (“Junebug”), “All Is Bright” is slight but satisfying, the kind of movie that will disappear from theaters but linger on the video-on-demand channels, as well as in the memory.

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