NEW YORK — Two ex-thieves, one less ex- than the other, attempt to go straight selling Christmas trees in Almost Christmas, Phil Morrison‘s long-in-coming sophomore film after the 2005 breakthrough Junebug; replacing Amy Adams‘ Southern ebullience with one of Paul Giamatti‘s most hangdog performances, this picture is more bittersweet than comic. Although winning in many ways, it will need the drawing power of Giamatti and co-star Paul Rudd to be effective counterprogramming to manipulative holiday fare.
The two actors play former partners in crime living in Ontario. While Dennis (Giamatti) was doing time for a botched burglary, Rene (Rudd) went straight and fell for Dennis’ wife, Therese (Amy Landecker); the feeling being mutual, Therese told Dennis’ daughter her father was dead and behaved as if it were true.
None of this sits well with Dennis, whose sincere heartache looks at first like simple ex-con bitterness and desperation. Insisting that he’ll go straight in order to win back his family, he coerces Rene into letting him in on a seasonal business venture — hauling Canadian trees down to a desolate corner in New York and spending a month trying to sell them.
It’s a lonely, hungry month — at least at first — in which the men live in a wooden trailer and must sneak into a nearby diner to use the toilet. If not for Graham Reynolds‘ endearing, jazzy score, some of the most happy-sad Christmas music this side of Vince Guaraldi, the film might fall into despair. Viewers expecting straight-ahead comedy from this cast will be disappointed. Although laughs do come — from guileless Rene, nervously chatting up a customs agent; from impatient Dennis, threatening to slash the neck of a competing tree merchant whose showmanship threatens sales — the film is happy to observe wryly as boredom and failure threaten to overwhelm the men.
Morrison’s direction turns dialogue into the opposite of banter, leaving air between lines; combined with his frequent, unfashionable use of zooms and cross-fades, the effect is to alienate us from the present tense, as if we too had just lost a few years and returned to a life whose rules had changed without apology.
The tone shifts with the arrival of Olga (Sally Hawkins), an immigrant house sitter for a pair of periodontists whose well-appointed home practically begs Dennis to return to crime. Rather than acting as a love interest, she seems to brusquely usher in various changes in fortune, some happier than others, and to counterintuitively nudge Dennis into full-bore mourning over his failed marriage. The way he chooses to deal with that grief isn’t what most viewers will expect, but it’s in keeping with the peculiar balance of loneliness and loyalty that keeps Almost Christmas afloat.
Production Company: Touchy Feely Films
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Paul Rudd, Sally Hawkins, Amy Landecker, Peter Hermann, Emory Cohen
Director: Phil Morrison
Screenwriter: Melissa James Gibson
Producers: Dan Carey, Elizabeth Giamatti, Sidney Kimmel, John Penotti
Executive producers: Paul Giamatti, Michael Hogan, Bruce Toll
Director of photography: W. Mott Hupfel III
Production designer: Mary Frederickson
Music: Graham Reynolds
Costume designer: Ciera Wells
Editor: Jeff Buchanan
Sales: Rena Ronson, United Talent Agency
No rating, 107 minutes