Because the holidays bring out such a wide variety of emotions in people, films centered on, or that take place during that festive time of year tend to run the gamut from cloyingly sweet to overly bitter. In the case of 'All is Bright,' from director Phil Morrison ('Junebug'), the mixture of Paul Giamatti's endlessly agitated, downtrodden, Canadian parolee and Paul Rudd, his upbeat-but-slightly-obtuse former partner-in-crime, the result is decidedly more the latter.
'All is Bright' is a potently ironic title for what is a rather bleak comedy that comes out fighting and relentlessly works its protagonist like an angry prizefighter, hitting him with barrage of emotional body blows that would have felt excessive had writer Melissa James Gibson not added a dash of ridiculousness to soften the blow – well, for the audience anyway. For Giamatti's Dennis, however, that early salvo has him struggling to pull himself off the canvas from get-go.
The film begins in Quebec, with Dennis walking down a desolate stretch of highway not long before Christmas. He's just been paroled, and with nobody around to pick him up, Dennis is slowly making his way into town. But considering what's left of the life he left behind before going to the clink, he may as well enjoy every minute of his chilly stroll. As it turns out, his ex-wife Therese (Amy Landecker) has not only told their daughter Michi (Tatyana Richaud) that Dennis is dead, but she's also about to be married to Rene (Rudd), the ex-partner who bailed on the job that ended in Dennis' arrest. Adding to the misery, Dennis is caught in a bitter catch-22 that finds him stuck in a town with zero job prospects; the catch being: he's unable to leave town and look for work elsewhere due to the conditions of his parole. With no options left, Dennis berates Rene until he's taken on as a partner in a seemingly fruitless venture to sell Christmas trees in New York City.
Despite the promise of quick cash, smuggling Dennis into New York doesn't turn out to be the answer to his prayers. Instead, he finds himself battling freezing temperatures, stagnant sales, and the constant reminder that his former best friend is planning to take over with the family that otherwise moved on without him. To the film's credit, it sticks with this negative tonal trajectory for as long as possible, using a too short conflict with competing tree salesmen for some awkward but needed laughs until Olga, a Ukrainian housekeeper played by Sally Hawkins ('Blue Jasmine,' 'Submarine'), stumbles across the tree lot and gives Dennis something to do other then berate Rene and look forlorn every time Therese phone's the new man in her life.
But 'All is Bright' surprisingly manages to insert Hawkins' Olga into the situation as a narrative means to an end, without being too overt about whether or not she's going to be the fix-all to Dennis' romantic problems, as the character would otherwise likely be in other films of this ilk. To that end, Olga is drawn with much the same kind of melancholy as Dennis and Rene, in that, for her, the holidays are not a time of great celebration and happiness; rather, as she's staying in the posh home of her employers, while they enjoy a winter vacation, the season is simply a constant reminder of all the things (personal, material, and otherwise) missing from her life. Still, somewhere between barking orders at the nascent tree salesman and giving him a pass for stealing an expensive candy dish, Olga and Dennis become fast friends, bound together by a shared, implicit misery.
Late in the film, the story finds additional conflict in Dennis' dual desires to turn his back on a lifetime of criminal behavior, and to supply his daughter with an adequate Christmas present that might just act as the perfect bridge on which he can re-enter her life. This adds to the many complications he's already facing, and the story seems to suggest that there is no suitable solution for any of the ills currently plaguing its agitated protagonist. Despite filling the story with characters intended to act as catalysts to the general improvement of Dennis' life – whether he's aware of their potential or not – 'All is Bright' remains committed to the notion that such a thing may not be possible. That kind of bleak outlook is certainly rare for a movie that is billed as both a holiday film and a comedy, so the movie should at least be commended for sticking to its guns.
The only problem, then, is that through all the endlessly intolerable things Dennis must endure, there is nothing to help balance the film out; it simply continues to pummel the audience with the idea that the utter cheerlessness of the film is where its entertainment value will be found. For some, that will certainly be the case, but had 'All is Bright' found some manner of connecting with Dennis beyond watching him begrudgingly undergo some kind of emotional anguish, it might have also found how the rather oppressive tone could have been lightened.
And, in the end, that's where 'All is Bright' stumbles: in its inability to balance its biting black humor with its desire to elicit some kind of heartfelt emotion from the audience. That lack of balance applies to the characters, as well; Paul Rudd and Sally Hawkins work fine as mechanisms for Dennis' change, but they become such and essential part of defining who he is as a character, the film has no time left for the audience to connect with Rene and Olga. Despite terrific performances from all three, depicting just how sullen and downtrodden these people are, and how frustrating life can be; there's little in the way of actual personality or depth for the story to really anchor itself. As a result, the film winds up feeling dimmer than it should, and its unrelenting bleakness is perhaps not as funny, or as poignant, as it was intended to be.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'All is Bright' comes as a single 25 GB Blu-ray disc + Digital Copy from Starz and Anchor Bay. The disc is free of special feature, but there are a handful of previews before the top menu.
'All is Bright' comes with a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer that produces a lovely and crisp image that is capable of capturing the bitter cold of the Canadian and New York winter, without the aid of heavy filters. Because of its preference toward the colder side of things, the image takes on a steely look; there is a deliberate color palette that favors blues, grays, and blacks without become overly drab, or awash in gloominess. The consistency of the frigid palette makes transitions to warmer interiors more noticeable and palpable for the viewing audience.
Fine detail is quite high here and noticeable in nearly every frame. Giamatti's perpetually frowning visage is wrapped in a menacing beard rendered with minute attention to detail that gives his performance a whole other dimension. Similarly, fine detail picks up other things like Rene's discolored tooth, and the lines of weariness that show on Olga's face, even though she's trying to smile. Texture is also present everywhere, pine needles obviously factor in to a great deal of the picture here, and, for the most part, they manage to be distinct enough you could count them if you were so inclined. Contrast levels are also high, giving the image a real sense of depth, even during night scenes where they only thing lighting the characters is a small fire and some white Christmas lights.
Overall, this is a clean and detailed image that does a lot with a relatively narrow color palette.
With its Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix, 'All is Bright' manages to capture most of the dialogue between the various characters in a clear and precise manner. Like the film itself, the sound can be a little uneven at times, but overall it gets the job done. For the most part, dialogue is delivered through the center channel speaker, with the front right and left being designated for sound effects and music. The rear channels tend to do a good job picking up various atmospheric elements that give Dennis and Rene's exposed living situation an immersive quality that also helps sell the film's primary New York setting.
There is a slight issue with balance, as the dialogue tends to feel a little soft in some places, giving way to the sound of, say, a bustling tree lot, traffic, or the din of a busy diner. In these cases, some of the actors can sound more muted than they should, but for the most part, it doesn't impact the audio too negatively. Otherwise, the music and what little sound effects there are come through sound full and robust, and manage to deliver when it comes to clarity and tone.
With just a few minor issues regarding the balance of the sound out of the way, this is a good sounding disc that delivers music and atmospheric effects quite well.
'All is Bright' is a dark comedy that definitely delivers on the dark, but has trouble finding the right balance between the additional (heartfelt and otherwise) elements it tries to add to its story. Giamatti and Rudd deliver terrific performances, but they come from characters who might have benefited from some additional depth and layering, which would have balanced some of the tonal issues the film struggled with. Still, if you're in the mood for a dark, holiday-based comedy, this movie will certainly deliver on that front. The disc has nothing to offer in terms of special features, but it does have a very nice picture and good sound. If you're stuck for something to watch, you could do worse. Give it a rent.