The Good Heart (Dagur Kári, 2009)
Dear...anyone who has ever attempted to make either a Lifetime or a Hallmark Original Movie: I would like you all to sit down in a theater somewhere (rent one, you can afford it) and watch Dagur Kári's 2009 movie The Good Heart. While you are doing so, don't have them dim the house lights, because you should be taking notes the entire damn time. This is how you make an inspirational, heartwarming, emotionally manipulative movie. This is everything you and your ilk have been trying to do for twenty years and, with the sole exception (in my experience) of one movie by a guy who actually started off directing direct-to-video softcore flicks, failed miserably to do every single time.
The last time Paul Dano and Brian Cox got together in front of a camera, the result was Michael Cuesta's phenomenal 2001 film L. I. E., which was phenomenal in no small part because of the chemistry between the two actors. Kári (Nói the Albino) reunited the two of them eight years later, after Ryan Gosling and Tom Waits dropped out of the project. It was a very good decision. Dano plays Lucas, a young homeless man with a penchant for failed suicide attempts. Cox is Jacques, a bar owner with a similar penchant, but for heart attacks. Synchronicity lands both of them in the hospital at the same time, and despite himself, Jacques takes a shine to the boy, taking him in and training him as a bartender. The two couldn't be more different, with Jacques' gruff cynicism playing against Lucas' wide-eyed wonder. Everything is going along swimmingly until a young, lost ex-stewardess named April (Girls Can't Swim's Isild Le Besco) shows up one rainy night. Lucas is instantly enchanted; Jacques is not a big fan of women in bars. Cue tension.
I'm not saying the movie doesn't have its problems. Yes, you can see that ending coming from a mile away, and yes, the romance subplot gets very short shrift a few times (one thinks that had Kári had the guts to go with a resolution a la Last Kind Words, it might have silenced a lot of the movie's critics). But much of the pleasure of watching this movie comes from that same Dano-Cox chemistry and how well it plays. Paul Dano always creeps me out just a little. He knows it, too, and he capitalizes on it at least once in every movie. Here it's the entire first half, which he plays almost robotically, save in a few key scenes that set up the second half of the movie (the sperm donation scene in hysterical). But then he blossoms into an actual human being, and you realize that what you've been seeing isn't a character, but an archetype. The same is true of Cox's character, and the two of them influencing one another are making them into actual human beings. It's a much better acting job than a lot of people have been giving it credit for, and it's all the better if you remember their relationship in L. I. E.. Everything else is secondary, though many of those secondary bits are a great deal of fun (the subplot with the duck, the long-standing rivalry between two of the bar's regulars, etc.) I saw homages to a number of different films here, and in many cases, I thought The Good Heart did its source material one better; the obvious parallels are with Barfly, with a bit of Coming Home thrown in, but there were bits that put me a great deal in mind of Inside Moves, All That Jazz, and maybe even a few shreds of Down by Law. It made a fun viewing experience just that much better. You probably missed this one when it was out in theaters (it grossed just under twenty thousand dollars theatrically in the USA); grab a copy of it now and remedy that. *** 1/2
(For the record, the one inspirational film that actually worked and was directed by someone who started off making DTV softcore: Yôjirô Takita's 2008 Oscar winner Okuribito.)