There are plenty of emotional opt-out opportunities in Phil Morrison’s bleak movie All Is Bright—points where audiences could be forgiven for losing faith, or just interest, in the sullen protagonist, newly released ex-convict Dennis (Paul Giamatti). The first comes a few moments into the film, when his caseworker glibly tells him he can’t get work in his economically depressed small Canadian hometown, but also can’t legally leave to seek work elsewhere, so perhaps he should live off the land. (When Dennis protests that he doesn’t own land, the caseworker says he’s being needlessly negative, and dismisses him.) It’s a moment calculated to be funny but infuriating, to show Dennis as trapped within an unsympathetic system, and therefore justified in the extreme steps he takes as the plot unfolds. But it’s one of several far-too-broad moments in a film that veers between caustic comedy, melodrama, and heartstring-tugging, without finding the spark of sympathy that would hold the film together around its disparate tones.
Other opt-out moments arrive as Dennis physically attacks his old partner-in-crime Rene (Paul Rudd), who is out to marry Dennis’ estranged, exasperated ex-wife Therese (Amy Landecker). Or when Dennis immediately follows up by inviting himself along on Rene’s planned monthlong trip to New York City to sell Christmas trees at an immense markup. Once in the city, Dennis assaults and threatens to murder a less-ramshackle tree-seller for the crime of being better managed and having a more appealing setup. He steals from the competition; he steals a border guard’s wallet; he steals from the only person in New York who treats him kindly and with personal concern. And he rarely lets up in his abuse of Rene, whom he decries as a useless loser because Rene is trying to go straight. Dennis’ anger and entitlement are exhausting, and frustratingly indiscriminate.
With its seemingly irredeemable protagonist, its weeks-before-Christmas setting, its focus on reprobates taking advantage of seasonal employment, and its bitter sense of humor, All Is Bright will feel familiar to Bad Santa fans, but the film lacks Bad Santa’s no-holds-barred outrageousness. It’s a more maudlin, mundane, sometimes miserablist drama that never cuts Dennis a break—not that he comes across as a character worthy of, or trying for, redemption. He almost completely lacks empathy, or interest in any needs but his own. For much of the film, his only nod to a world outside the reach of his fists comes via his reckless plan to earn enough money to buy a Christmas-present piano for his young daughter Michi, who thinks he died of cancer, thanks to Therese’s determination to cut him out of her life.
And yet somehow, Dennis finds a friend in snappish, heavily-accented Russian expat Olga (Sally Hawkins, just seen in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine), a character that walks a precise line between Meryl Streep’s deeply wounded but artificially cheery Polish immigrant in Sophie’s Choice, and Sylvia Miles as the well-off but vulnerable non-client that Jon Voight’s gigolo Joe picks up in Midnight Cowboy. Olga’s solemn, fussy devotion to improving Dennis’ life and supporting him through his current setbacks takes up a significant chunk of the film’s runtime, yet she never develops a character or background of her own. And she isn’t alone: Rudd and Giamatti are both stellar actors, and Giamatti in particular is impressively intimidating here, with his heavy-browed, apocalyptic glower and humorless fury. But all three characters are bereft of depth, cycling through the same few variations on frustrated, relieved, and miserable, and veering between gags and confrontation without finding much meat in either.
Ultimately, the film gives Dennis’ struggles some small shape by portraying his life as a series of intolerable limits. He can’t talk to his daughter; he can’t tell her he’s alive. He can’t stay unemployed at home, and he can’t leave without legal ramifications. He can’t be Rene’s enemy, and he can’t be his friend. He can’t give Olga what she wants, but he also can’t do without her. He can’t even peacefully pee in the restaurant across the street from his sales lot; the employees kick up a screaming, violent fuss because he isn’t a paying customer. All Is Bright’s title is a sullen irony; the film’s message is the exact opposite. But while it’s daring for a Christmas-focused movie to proceed with this little uplift, it needs something to offer audiences in its place. Instead, the film feels like a box full of broken glass: a bunch of jagged, conflicting pieces that are capable of cutting, but not of fitting together.