By David Salazar, d.salazar@latinospost.com (staff@latinospost.com) | First Posted: Apr 19, 2013 11:53 PM EDT

Rene (Paul Rudd) talks on his cell phone while Denis (Paul Giamatti) saws a wooden sign.
(Photo : Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise)

The holiday season is nowhere near, but Phil Morrison's "Almost Christmas" hopes that success at the Tribeca Film Festival will eventually turn into some nice numbers come Christmas time. As one might surmise from the title (and this introduction), the film attempts to recreate the good feelings surrounding the yearly celebration; thanks to solid performances from Sally Hawkins, Paul Giamatti, and Paul Rudd, it almost succeeds.

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Set in Canada, Dennis (Giamatti) has just gotten out of jail after several years behind bars for theft. As the opening credits roll, the viewer is shown the long journey that he must endure by foot to get home to his wife Therese and daughter Michi. When he gets home he is told by his wife (through written notes) that she told his daughter that he has died of cancer. Eventually Dennis finds out that the problem is deeper than that. Therese is set to get married to Rene, another former thief who quit on Dennis and was the direct reason for his landing in jail. Dennis confronts Rene and eventually convinces him to allow him to work with him. The two set out for New York to sell Christmas trees and initiate the development of a friendship.

As with typical "bromances," Rene and Dennis start off at odds and eventually become best buds; also at work here is a reversal of roles between the two characters. Paul Giamatti makes Dennis a nervous wreck that fidgets and seems ready for a violent outburst. Throughout the early parts of the film, Dennis ports a scowl on his face and looks like the most miserable human alive. However, he also showcases a few moments that make him frightening and unpredictable. In one scene, Dennis walks over to another tree salesman and physically threatens him. As the film develops Dennis calms down and takes on a more assertive role. He starts to run the business and even educates himself on Christmas trees. He shares a few tender moments with Russian maid Olga (Hawkins) and is able to hold his emotions in check when his former wife continually calls Rene on the phone.

Rene starts off full of smiles and loves having the attention and control of every situation. In one scene, the two men are packing trees and Dennis gives up out of fatigue. Rene continues working, but also blabbers endlessly. During the car ride, he continues to chatter to the point that Dennis asks him to stop; he lacks the charisma that his counterpart does and seeing it irritates Dennis greatly. However, the distance from home, the constant failures, and even his own emotional insecurities expose an unstable man that falters as the film develops; the talking and smiling stop and Rene degenerates into an alcoholic that only knows how to drink, vomit, and cry. The development is brilliantly executed with Rene checking out a naked woman from afar; eventually he starts flirting with another. When he receives some much-anticipated news, he runs away and disappears; his indecision is exposed.  Physically, Rudd looks dominant and striking in early instances, but hovels over in latter scenes and even hides behind the trees.

Despite strong performances from the leading men, Hawkins steals the show as Olga. The actress is completely unrecognizable behind the Russian accent and mannerisms and it is her presence that gives the bleak film its much needed comic relief. Her arc also proves to be the most fascinating of the three. When the viewer first meets Olga, she is dressed to the nines and comes across with an authoritative attitude. The first thought is that she is one of the rich people and her generosity toward Dennis is endearing. However, as the story develops new secrets are revealed about her; it all culminates in a crushing moment for the character that marks the film tonally.

Despite the fascination with the arc, it also reveals the film's unwieldy nature. While Olga's story is engrossing, it ultimately turns into little more than a plot device to facilitate the film's climax. She disappears from the movie and ultimately serves minimal thematic relevance. More frustrating is the final chapter in the bromance where the two men supposedly reconcile and become best buds. Even though that development occurs, it happens rather quickly with the two never actually coming to terms with their conflicting circumstances. One character saves the other's life, but after that they are back to work as if they hadn't fought a few scenes earlier (they fight in front of two teenage boys in one of the film's most memorable scenes). The whole matter ultimately feels rushed and never has the anticipated cathartic payoff.

This film suffers from a few technical miscues as well. As the two men ride to New York, Morrison shoots the scene with opposing close-ups. While Giamatti's shot is in sharp focus, Rudd's is clearly soft the entire time; while one grows to accept the mistake, it distracts from the immersion in the world of the film. Another scene that is technically flawed is a brief one in which Rene fires his old partner. The scene mimics the style of a student film and somehow looks cheap; the music playing underneath does little to help matters.

Ultimately "Almost Christmas" is an engaging, entertaining film that will have viewers laughing throughout. Unfortunately, the film loses steam near the end and stitches together the unresolved plot strands in an erratic manner. 

 

 

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