Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Good Heart Movie Review: Spurning the Audience for No Good Reason

The Good Heart, the most depressing buddy comedy you’ll ever see, doesn’t offer much in the way of emotional investment, but what little goodwill it earns in its first 85 minutes is completely squandered in the most horrendously unearned ending in the history of cinema. Although maybe you have to give some credit to a movie that manages both that and the most high-minded philosophical fart joke in cinematic history. No, seriously.

Icelandic film maker Dagur Kari, who wrote and directed the film, has a long way toward understanding how to write characters that the audience cares about. Paul Dano is Lucas, a young homeless man who is seen at the opening sharing a can of cat food with his pet kitten and then sleeping in a makeshift shelter beneath a highway. Brian Cox is Jacques, a cantankerous old codger who owns a bar and is slowly cultivating his fifth heart attack as he screams obscenities at a loyal customer to get him out of the bar.

This unlikely pairing share a hospital room after Lucas’s suicide attempt and Jacques’s latest heart attack. Jacques, having no family or friends, sees in the young man a possible heir to the bar after he’s dead and gone. Upon leaving the hospital, Jacques seeks him out, gives him a ramshackle room in his apartment above his grungy bar and begins to teach him the artistry of being a bartender.

If you hadn’t guessed by Lucas’s kitten and Jacques’s poor ticker, the title refers to the younger of the two. Kari’s screenplay and direction hammer home the metaphor with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. Lucas gives hugs around to all the hospital workers and desperately wants to compensate them for their troubles, ultimately deciding he wants to be an organ donor – right away. Don’t worry, the nurse convinces him to wait until he dies. Jacques, on the other hand, is a miserable sod. He drinks and smokes in spite of doctors’ orders. He grows so frustrated by a relaxation tape that he destroys it in a mad rage.

What an odd couple these two should make! Jacques imposes his selfish worldview onto Lucas, teaching him that in the bar no women are allowed and they don’t accept “walk ins”. Only the tried and true regulars (of which there are about 6 – don’t ask how he stays in business) are permitted.

Things seem to be going okay until a French airline hostess shows up out of nowhere. Lucas takes to her and they decide to get married. Jacques becomes livid as he has no room in his life for women and orders Lucas to get rid of “the bitch.” Ultimately Jacques acquiesces temporarily, but Lucas begins to transform into a character more brutish than the dovish kitten hugger than he was early on.

Dano and Cox are both gifted actors and Cox does what he can with a limited role. How many different ways are there to play “asshole”? Dano, who was quite good in Little Miss Sunshine and revelatory in There Will Be Blood seems uncomfortable in his own skin here. Maybe he’s trying to project that quality onto Lucas, but it comes across more as an actor unable to connect to a role.

Kari succeeds in creating a labored film that attempts to demonstrate the necessity of goodness in life, not only for other people, but for quality of your own life and health. In the end, it is Jacques who turns out to be the character who makes the big transformation and whom we are supposed care about most. But the story never gives us a single reason why we should care whether he lives or dies. Then there’s that ending I mentioned. It completely blindsides you, leaving you feeling like you’ve just been completely cheated out of 90 minutes of your life. I was left awestruck by the absurdity and dumbfounded by the preposterousness of the director who thought it was acceptable.

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