All is Bright (formerly known as Almost Christmas) is a Christmas-adjacent film that exists on the fringes of sentimentality, offering up a simple and slightly crumpled story about a pair of unremarkable losers — a selfish ex-con who is having a hard time reforming and his mensch-y former partner in crime who is trying to do his best to get by honestly.
Together, the two men migrate from Canada to New York to open a makeshift Christmas tree lot, fueled by the need for quick cash. The catch? Rene, the sorta mensch (as played by Paul Rudd) stepped in for ex-con Dennis (as played by Paul Giamatti) and stole his wife and daughter while he was in prison.
Such a dramatic twist could have set this film off on a different path filled with either melodrama or broad comedy, but instead, we get something a bit more honest and subtle as the two men are bound together by desperation, a wisp of friendship, and their less than typical business plan.
These men are not fundamentally changed by this journey either, and that is refreshing. Too often, writers try to pretend that the “monster to saint” transition is as simple as 1-2-3, or that people only need to have that “Ah ha!” moment to alter years of wrong behavior. It’s the kind of evolution that reads nicely, but which doesn’t often translate to film, particularly when you’re trying to tell a small scale story such as this.
The credit for this simple/charming script and these worn down/ relatable characters goes to Melissa James Gibson, a first-time feature writer who somehow creates a satisfying end that hints at growth and acceptance without actually subjecting us to it.
We are all creatures of habit, and Gibson gets that, keeping the characters on a consistent footing all throughout.
Dennis is a role that allows Giamatti a chance to channel his patented near comical, sorta quiet, completely annoyed, and secretly explosive persona. He is furious that his wife is lost to him and that his daughter thinks he is dead (a lie concocted by the wife to explain his absence and carried over so as to not destroy the child). They are his property, he wants them back, and more importantly, he doesn’t want Rene to smell his wife’s hair.
We see little change with regard to that over the course of this film. Sure, there are cracks and a hint that he has begrudgingly accepted reality, but this stubbornness feels inborn and everlasting. And that is a credit to the performer and the writer.
Rene, on the other hand, is a bit dim. Rudd plays him as a loveable loser — a nice contrast to Giamatti’s character (who is not particularly lovable, but more sad). It’s Rene’s underlying guilt about taking Dennis’ family and the way that his and Dennis’ partnership originally dissolved that is the key to the story, but while a lot clearly bothers Rene underneath his affable facade, we’re not privy to a lot of what is going on underneath the surface.
Would it have been nice to see more of Rene’s days long freakout after finding out that his ex had finally agreed to a divorce? Perhaps, but I kinda dig the fact that we don’t get to see it and that we are only allowed to see Rene through Dennis’ eyes.
As for the supporting cast, the standouts include Amy Landecker as Therese, the woman at the center of this sorta-love triangle, and Sally Hawkins as Olga, a quirked-up yet kind-hearted acquaintance of Dennis’. I like Landecker in this small but significant role. She gets a lot out of a little.
Overall, All is Bright is a solid dramedy with an impressive script and typically great performances from Giamatti and Rudd, though, as bizarre a suggestion as it is, I would have liked this more had their roles been reversed.
All is Bright is presently available via VOD and it will be in theaters on October 4th.