I’ve always had a special place in my heart for the Christmas season. It truly is the most magical time of the year and that spirit has been reflected in countless movies about the joy of Santa, giving, and the power of the season. But there have also been some awesome movies set during Christmas time that aren’t necessarily Christmas films, Die Hard being the first to come to mind. Christmas is the only time of the year that can take an awesome action story like that and make it even better by throwing in carols and decorations, and that’s part of why I love the snow and eggnog so much.
The newest non-traditional Christmas film to release is Phil Morrison’s All Is Bright. While not a badass action film like Die Hard and not one of the many fun Christmas horror flicks, this is definitely not your typical holiday story. There is no Santa, there’s no magical reindeer, and for the most part, there’s no Christmas cheer.
Paul Giamatti and Paul Rudd star as two half-witted former criminals from Canada who go to New York City with a truck full of Christmas trees. Giamatti’s Dennis just got out of jail, and comes home to the disturbing news that his ex-wife told his daughter that he had died of cancer. Her new lover happens to be his ex-partner Rene (Rudd), so Dennis guilts Rene into taking him with on this holiday money-making adventure. When they get to New York, the combination of their difficulty selling trees and their personal differences leads to a much longer, much more depressing month than either originally anticipated.
Admittedly, the story seems to drag a bit, but it’s helped along greatly by the two top-notch performances from Giamatti and Rudd. It’s the sort of film that’s completely reliant on the skill of its leads, and they definitely do not disappoint. I’m not sure that there’s anyone in Hollywood who plays the curmudgeonly asshole better than Paul Giamatti, and he’s in rare form in this one. His character spends nearly the entire movie furious with Rudd’s character, and those are the sort of moments I watch Giamatti for.
But as enjoyable as the moments where Dennis is yelling at Rene are, he’s even better when quietly engaging in his slow-developing relationship with Sally Hawkins’ Olga, an eastern European maid whose generosity seems to surprise Dennis. Those are the moments where the subtleties of Giamatti’s performance shine through, and it’s those subtleties that are the most striking of all.
Both Giamatti and Rudd are cast very much on type here. Neither actor is extraordinary or revolutionary in their role, but you know when casting Giamatti as an angry man and Rudd as a naive nice guy, they aren’t going to mess it up. They both shine in the parts and though some may consider the safety of their casting to be a bit boring, it makes for two very dependable performances.
That being said, within the context of the story, their characters just aren’t all that interesting. I spent most of the movie perplexed by Rene’s motivation. We get to learn a bit about Dennis, but by the end Rene is still a complete mystery. We don’t know anything about his relationship with his wife, other than the fact he wants a divorce, and we really don’t know how he ended up with Dennis’ ex-wife. We don’t know why he wanted out of the criminal world so badly, and we don’t know what he does when he’s not selling Christmas trees. All these unknowns aren’t in a mysterious sort of way where it makes his character more intriguing either. Rather, they are just missing, and it makes the character feel one-dimensional. In the hands of a less capable actor than Rudd, the character would’ve been a complete flop.
Even with the lacking moments in the story, there’s something to be said for a Christmas movie that doesn’t have the traditional happy ending. While All Is Bright‘s conclusion isn’t quite as dark as the rest of the film, it still isn’t the typical warm, fuzzy ending that we’ve come to expect from films about families at Christmas.
I know that will definitely turn some people off as many people want their Christmas movies to be filled with cheer, and usually I’m no different. But despite how much I love the season, I’m realistic that it isn’t a happy time for everyone. For those who aren’t having the best year, the holidays can be quite a bummer, so it’s good to have another film that properly conveys that.
As for the Blu-Ray itself, it is rather disappointing and really doesn’t do anything to improve on the movie at all. There aren’t any special features, and while the picture quality is decent and the audio is acceptable, this isn’t the sort of film that is going to be watched for the technical aspects. If you’ve seen the film already and weren’t a huge fan, there’s nothing on this Blu-Ray that will sway you, unless you’re really into scene selection or Spanish subtitles.
Still, despite the weaknesses of the Blu-Ray, I’d say the movie itself is one worth watching. If you haven’t seen it yet, and would rather own than simply rent it on-demand, then this Blu-Ray isn’t a terrible option. All Is Bright isn’t the sort of movie I’ll feel compelled to watch every year, and it’s certainly not going to be my Christmas Eve movie of choice, but the solid performances at the top of the cast are enough to make this one film that I’m excited to revisit on a night when I’m feeling less-than-cheerful about the holiday season.
It may not be the next Christmas classic, but All Is Bright is a quality, darker spin on a season where happiness isn't always easy to come by.