Paul Giamatti is a national treasure. If he is in a movie it is categorically impossible for it to be all bad. Despite "Junebug" director Phil Morrison and FX's "The Americans" writer Melissa James Gibson's best efforts to keep "Almost Christmas" a lifeless and wholly forgettable film, Giamatti's inherent virtues prevent this movie from evaporating into nothingness. While dismissing this dully scripted, lackluster film seems like the only reasonable response, Giamatti's natural, everyman empathy has the unusual power of lending an importance to rote scenes, turning the bland into the sublime and rescuing the movie from full failure.
Nevertheless, "Almost Christmas," a film about French Canadian Christmas tree salesmen stationed on a Brooklyn street corner, still stinks, which is especially upsetting when you consider that this is Morrison's first directorial effort since 2005's wonderful "Junebug."
From the first moments of its trying-too-hard opening credits, this tale of a thief newly sprung from prison and trying to go straight just can't get a handle on what sort of movie it wants to be. There are tones of 1970s shaggy realism that are interrupted by moments of character-driven shtick. The wistful scenes aren't rich enough to engross you and the comedy isn't clever enough to make a difference. The bulk of the film is about two men stewing in regret, and you'll sympathize because you'll be sitting right there along with them.
Giamatti's Dennis, unable to find work and unwelcomed by his ex-wife Therese (Amy Landecker,) hooks up with his ex-partner Rene (Paul Rudd.) Rene has gone straight, and busted his ass last winter selling trees down in New York. Since Rene feels a little guilty now that Dennis knows he's moved in on Therese (who has told Dennis' daughter that he died of cancer) he allows him to partner up for the season.
There the alleged hijinks ensue as this mismatched pair toil with weather, poor sales and buried feelings, and while some moments are cute, it all feels like an under-workshopped play. The pair try different approaches to move product, a few of which are amusing. Anglophone Rene impersonating a Quebecois is entertaining, if only for the fact that this bit of niche racial humor is fresh.
Sally Hawkins barges onto the stage with the words Act Two's New Character tattooed on her forehead. She's a live-in maid at a wealthy couple's home. A "palace of dentist" who is off skiing in "Hole of Jackson," as this Russian immigrant calls it. It's a wacky ethnic caricature on the order of Mickey Rooney's Japanese neighbor in "Breakfast and Tiffany's," and while Hawkins is naturally hilarious (see "Happy Go Lucky") the performance itself is something of a joke.
And yet, there's one moment - a loose tag in this unruffled shirt - when Hawkins' character takes Dennis to a piano store. There are some long lens shots of her playing where the camera drinks in the outer borough scene through the storefront windows that evokes 70s filmmakers like Altman, Mazursky or James Toback. It's little moments like this that almost make "Almost Christmas" worth watching.
At the heart of it is Giamatti, accepting that a life "gone straight" will be hard and that nothing he can do will win back the family from his past. It's undeniably touching. There's a devastating moment with him making a collect phone call that is one of the finest scenes I've seen all year.
Giamatti isn't a chameleon. While perhaps best suited as the sad sack ("American Splendor," "Sideways," "Win Win") even his atypical roles like the exec in "Duplicity," the idealistic romantic in "Barney's Version" or founding father in "John Adams" exude a man in constant dialogue with indignity. Even when he's being brutal he's agreeable. I can't think of any actor who can do a funnier angry bit. Maybe Jason Alexander, maybe John Cleese, but neither taps into the sadness and pain that comes with being slapped around for too long by the world.
I almost recommend seeing "Almost Christmas." It is meandering, low-energy and filled with phoney-feeling side characters and plot turns, but there's something about shivering in the cold with a broke and directionless Paul Giamatti that seems essential.
SCORE: 5.0 / 10.0