There is something particularly frustrating about a movie that should by all rights be considerably better than it is in reality. Almost Christmas is, alas, one such film. Its pedigree is sparkling: it stars Paul Giamatti and Paul Rudd, features a charming supporting turn by Sally Hawkins, and was directed by Phil Morrison, whose debut feature was 2005’s critics’ darling Junebug. This is only his second movie, and no doubt many fans of Junebug are waiting eagerly to see the product of his long hiatus. If only Almost Christmas were distinct enough to live up to those expectations.
Giamatti plays Dennis, an ex-thief who discovers upon being released from prison that his wife Thérèse (Amy Landecker) has told their young daughter that he is dead (“Cancer,” she tells him, though “the doctors never figured out what kind … You suffered a lot”) and, to add insult to injury, taken up with his old partner in crime René (Rudd), whom she hopes to marry. They live in Quebec, where there are no jobs; his parole officer cheerfully tells him he should depend on his family or “live off the land” that he doesn’t own. He convinces René to take him to New York with him to sell Christmas trees on the street, thereby breaking his parole, and off they go.
Rudd’s charming, dopey René is a welcome presence: though the film is clearly meant to be a comedy — and is occasionally quite funny — Giamatti’s performance is more serious and morose than feels quite necessary or appropriate. His mutton chops, receding hairline, and hooded eyes all make him look like he’s gearing up to play a nineteenth century Russian novelist — he’s got something of the Dostoevsky about him – and his furor and grief about the loss of his family are almost uncomfortably real, especially since they are not levied by as much humor as we might like. This wouldn’t matter as much if Dennis were more likable, but in truth, he’s just an unpleasant person — I wouldn’t want to stay married to him, either, especially not after he’d been in prison for four years. If only the film were funnier, weirder, or more surprising – but unfortunately it just sort of coasts along, right in the middle of the road, depressingly ambivalent about its characters and their lives.
The fact that Dennis is less than thrilled at the state of his life is understandable, but this narrative is an old, tired one: how many times are we going to have to watch movies about men fighting over women before we all finally accept that women are independent people capable of making decisions about their lives? I think we are supposed to understand that Dennis’ expectations of his wife are unreasonable, particularly given that it’s clear from the outset that he’s not going to succeed in winning her back; at the same time, the narrative is couched almost entirely in his point of view, which makes the movie feel more sympathetic to him than it should. There is something undeniably unappealing about his possessive attitude toward his wife and child, and the fact that the story is essentially a drama between him and his rival, not him and his wife, speaks to the its wearying focus on masculine posturing.
I noticed during the opening credits that the screenplay had been written by a woman, Melissa James Gibson, so I was surprised as the film unfolded by how male-centric it was. The only substantial female character aside from Thérèse is Sally Hawkins’ Olga, a house-sitter for a pair of rich dentists who speaks with a thick Russian accent and buys a tree from Dennis and René’s sad-sack tree stand. Olga is an odd duck and by far the most interesting part of the movie, though there is a hint of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl about her: she’s sort of inexplicably bizarre and it’s very, very difficult to understand why she takes a shine to Dennis, aside from the fact that she’s obviously lonely. It would take a profound level of loneliness to make Dennis an appealing prospect, though, romantically or otherwise.
Despite this, she manages to be quite charming and far more compelling than any of the other characters, in no small part due to Hawkins’ performance. You get the sense that she was on an entirely different wavelength from the rest of the cast: the movie doesn’t quite know what to make of her. Even her identity is unclear: for much of the film, I thought that she was a dentist, before ultimately realizing that she was (disappointingly) only working for a couple of dentists, as a house-sitter and/or maid of some sort; amusingly, the official description of the film on the festival site (written by a festival coordinator, not someone associated with the movie) refers to her as a dentist’s wife.
Almost Christmas is not bad, exactly: it’s just sort of tired and predictable. There’s nothing vital about it, nothing that distinguishes it from a host of similar films that have been made over the last few decades (anybody looking for a Christmas movie about an ex-con should consider himself directed to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang — skip this, and spare yourself the time and trouble). Its only real appeal lies in its actors, and all of them have been much better used in other movies — all of which are available on Netflix.