Almost Christmas, the latest film from Junebug director Phil Morrison, helps to explain the process of how all those Christmas trees get to the street corners of Brooklyn and why they cost so much. It does indeed take a lot to get them there, as we discover from a pair of tree-transporting frenenemies from Québec, played by Paul Giamatti and Paul Rudd. Once you get past the fact that these guys are probably the only two Québecois who don’t speak French, the actors win in their roles. However, the film is filled with pacing issues as well as comic situations and characters that just fall completely flat.
Giamatti plays Dennis, a guy who has just completed a four-year prison sentence for a botched heist. He heads to the home of ex-wife Therese (Amy Landecker) to see their young daughter (Tatyana Richaud), only to discover that she’s been told he died of cancer. He also finds out that Therese is in love with his best friend, Rene (Rudd). The two men already have a complicated relationship, as Rene bailed on their heist, which caused Dennis to be caught by the police.
Dennis is in a tight spot because he has no money and no place to live. While confronting Rene in a bar about stealing his wife, he learns that his old friend has gone straight, selling Christmas trees in New York City, and Dennis demands to be involved. Rene smuggles Dennis across the border in his truck, and the two struggle to unload the trees while dealing with their entangled relationship. Dennis also befriends Olga (Sally Hawkins), his first customer and a kindred spirit.
The two Pauls are engaging in the lead roles, Rudd playing somewhat against type as the outdoorsy-looking talkative one (he is usually a buttoned-up straight man). He works nicely off Giamatti, who is tightly-wound and the smarter of the two characters. It’s easy to buy that they have been friends their whole lives, and they are both so likable that we can forgive the meandering Canadian accents (Rudd seems to be trying harder than Giamatti with the task).
Where Morrison goes wrong is with pacing. For most of the film the characters are in one location – the tree lot in Brooklyn – and not much happens there in terms of plot or character development. Rene has a bit of an emotional crisis near the end and Dennis softens slightly, but they mainly just bicker about Therese and try to sell Christmas trees. That’s about it. At one point there’s a crime the two become involved in, but even that concludes with a whimper. The pace was clearly intended to be enlivened with jokes and one-liners, but unfortunately they mostly fall flat.
Morrison was significantly more successful with Junebug. That film’s zany Southern family provided stronger characters and an inherently more interesting backdrop to tell a story in. A Christmas tree lot? Not so much. And while Giamatti and Rudd are pleasant to watch, Dennis and Rene just aren’t given enough layers. The script needs more action and a more boisterous streak. More heist hijinks would have been appreciated, for instance. Even the one framing device of Dennis’s daughter opening up an advent calendar day by day makes the film drag on more. I kept wondering, “It’s still not Christmas yet?”
Then there’s Hawkins as Olga. She feels completely out of place. Dressed like a Lacroix-less Edina Monsoon from Absolutely Fabulous and spouting would-be one-liners in a fake-sounding Russian accent, her presence doesn’t make much sense, and it’s unclear why her character takes such a shine to Dennis. She practically stalks their Christmas tree lot with little to no motivation. Perhaps she was added to the mix for an injection of whimsy, though surely there were other ways of doing so more effectively.
Thankfully, this film is hardly saccharine sweet, it being a holiday movie, but it drags. It should be funnier and have more going on. Also, given the issue with the accents, why couldn’t Dennis and Rene just have been from the tree-growing state of Vermont?
The Upside: Giamatti and Rudd are charming leads and have good chemistry.
The Downside: The film never really finds its momentum, and while it’s decidedly a “dark comedy,” most of the intended jokes fall flat. Also, the usually likable Hawkins doesn’t fit well here.
On the Side: Morrison also has some good TV work under his belt, like The Upright Citizens Brigade and one episode of the delightful The Adventures of Pete and Pete.