Christmas can soften the heart of anyone. That goes for the Grinch and it goes for French-Canadian ex-cons, if you take All Is Bright at its word. The indie gem stars Paul Giamatti as Dennis, a recently paroled Quebecois thief that teams up with his former partner Rene to make a quick but legal buck selling Christmas trees in New York City.
Everything about Dennis' involvement in this scheme is complicated. Leaving his bleak, gray hometown is a violation of the terms of his parole. Doing it with Rene, who is played by Paul Rudd, makes it even more awkward because, in Dennis' absence, he has struck up a relationship with his wife Therese. Giamatti's character is such a forgotten man at home that Therese, who is played by Amy Landecker, has told their daughter Michi that her father is dead.
Dennis is a bearded, balding Charlie Brown. Giamatti, as he has seemed to in about every third movie since American Splendor, operates at a rolling boil, bubbling over with rage on occasion, but trying -- really trying -- to keep it all together.
Dennis has no other real choices, of course. There are no jobs to be had back in Quebec, and with Therese unwilling to tell their daughter that her father isn't actually did, he doesn't exactly have a stable home to which he can return. His limited options notwithstanding, it is what Dennis wants to do with his paycheck that gives All Is Bright its charm. Rather than getting himself back on his feet, Dennis wants to buy a piano for Michi, who has a passion for the instrument, as a Christmas present.
With that, rather than his miserable life, to work for,
Dennis is able to tolerate, just barely, Rene's dopiness and the wretched spot they end up occupying in New York City -- only an unexpected friendship with Sally Hawkins' Olga helping him through the whole experience.
The film's quirky premise and the presence of Giamatti and Rudd might make it seem like a comedy, but its sense of humor is dry and melancholy. There's more genuine heart to All Is Bright than anything else really. It's such an odd and under-marketed film that I don't expect it will become a Christmas classic ... soon. Given its dark tone, it's probably safe to say it won't ever be a Christmas classic. There's only room for one Charlie Brown, after all.
That doesn't mean it shouldn't. The modest dreams of Giamatti's character -- to give his estranged daughter the one thing she really wants on Christmas even as life deals him one bad hand after another -- encapsulates the holiday spirit better than most films have.