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Celluloid Christmas: Holy Hollywood! "All Is Bright"

Paul Giamatti and Paul Rudd in "All Is Bright"

The sixth entry of my 12 Days of Christmas marathon is “All Is Bright,” a 2013 dramedy from Phil Morrison. Morrison achieved much acclaim back in 2005 for “Junebug,” a movie that he directed and was honored with an Oscar nod for Amy Adams. This quirky “fish out of water” film launched Adams’s career into the Hollywood A-list stratosphere. Strangely, the director Morrison didn’t achieve a similar fate. It is eight years between “Junebug,” his motion picture debut, and his sophomore effort, “All Is Bright.” For that reason alone, I think it’s an ideal Christmas selection. It’s a chance to see a filmmaker try to redeem his career and live up to his predicted promise.

Briefly set in Canada, and then in Brooklyn, New York, the comedy-drama centers around two men who would be generously described as “struggling salesmen.” Paul Rudd plays Rene, a onetime burglar/ne’er-do-well, who wants to go straight. His inclination to earn a quick buck, and get good hard cash in time for the holidays, revolves around selling Christmas trees. He aims to transport evergreens cut down from Canada and peddle them for an exorbitant price to susceptible, snobbish New Yorkers.

Paul Giamatti in "All Is Bright," even though it isn't.

Rene’s former partner in crime—both figuratively and literally—is a fellow named Dennis (Paul Giamatti). He’s just been released from prison and is desperate for a new line of work. His parole officer tells him that the economy in their hometown has gone kaput, and he can’t leave in search of better horizons, due to his parole status. The parole officer’s suggestion is that Dennis should learn to make a living from the land. When Dennis counters that he owns no land, the bureaucrat just gives a shrug and a sigh; then he tells him to stop being unnecessarily negative. We see that things are not looking too bright for this ex-con.

Christmastime is the perfect season for movies that wallow in the salvaging of human spirits, men of bad character suddenly becoming good (or at least better). It’s not just Ebenezer Scrooge who goes through this Yuletide transformation. Literature, movies, and entire women’s channels are devoted to this premise. In “All Is Bright,” we follow along as two of life’s unlucky souls attempt to turn their fortunes around. Rene and Dennis were never a good mix when they were pulling capers together, and their foray into forestry is just as combustible.

Paul Rudd's character Rene thinks he's found a new dream life.

Rene has found a woman he wants to marry. In fact, his new fiancée has a genial and clever young daughter. When he returns to Canada flush with cash, he’ll be able to kick-start a new dreamy life as a husband and dad. There’s just one drawback: The lady and the child are Dennis’s ex-wife and daughter. Therese (Amy Landecker) has divorced Dennis and told their child that he passed away from cancer. So, this parolee’s prospects are quite limited. He can’t find gainful employment; he can’t visit his daughter (unless he wants to pretend to be the Ghost of Christmas Past); he can’t truly reconcile his hostility toward Rene’s moving in on his territory with his own honing in on Rene’s business. This is bound to be a messy arrangement for the two buddies.

“All Is Bright” is an ironic title for this film about the underbelly of Christmas trappings. I mean, did you ever wonder who chopped down the live trees that are gracing your living room or den? Did you ever consider how they got to the corner lot, and who are the men selling them, wrapping them up, and sometimes delivering them to your homes? These aren’t Santa's elves, and certain fellows have complicated and corrupted backgrounds. Paul Giamatti’s performance as Dennis puts the ex-con in X-Mas, and reminds viewers that some people have different expectations and angles about the holiday season.

Sally Hawkins as a Russian ex-pat, and Giamatti as an ex-con

The movie has a dark and gritty look to it. It isn’t bright (contrary to the title) and it has a permanent aura of dusk or twilight. Everything seems extraordinarily dark for these two guys. Since it is a Christmas movie, though, there are moments of happiness and radiance. Actress Sally Hawkins provides most of the upbeat laughs as a Russian housekeeper named Olga. Hers and Dennis’s paths cross, and she strives to coax the good man who resides within him to step out and see the light of day.

“All Is Bright” is one of those films that is described as a character piece, or, in this case, a lack-of-character movie. Even though the two central heroes are not heroic, they do make you understand their motives, their drive, and their ambitions. With both actors garbed in blue-collar costuming, and Paul Rudd really downplaying his cute, boyish good looks, they’re like a Christmas amalgam of “Scarecrow” and “Of Mice and Men.” While I was watching this, I thought that Gene Hackman and Al Pacino from “Scarecrow” (1973) or Gary Sinise and John Malkovich from “Of Mice and Men” (1992) could have easily stepped into these Christmas slippers.

There is something very "Scarecrow" about the pairing.

The flick has that Frank Capra (“Meet John Doe”) meets John Schlesinger (“Midnight Cowboy”) vibe, but with Christmas tree hustling instead of the callboy variety. It’s a combo worth unwrapping on an unbooked, lazy December afternoon.

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