The Good Heart

If it looks like a duck...

If it looks like a duck…

(2009) Drama (Magnolia) Brian Cox, Paul Dano, Isild Le Besco, Bill Buell, Booi, Susan Blommaert, Alice Olivia Clarke, Kim Songwon Brown, Stephen Henderson, Seth Sharp, David Moss, Dale A. Smith, Michelle Nelson, Henry Yuk Lui, Ed Wheeler, Clark Middleton, Stephanie Szostak, Edmund Lyndeck, Nicolas Bro, Daniel Raymont, Damian Young, Elissa Middleton. Directed by Dagur Kari

There is something inherently noble in a dive bar. It is the refuge of the lost, the lonely and the abandoned. It is a place for those who have given up on life as well as those who life has given up upon. It is a gin-soaked, beer-drenched haven of dignity for those who have none.

Crotchety old Jacques (Cox) owns just such an establishment in the center of New York City. Slovenly, suspicious, mean-spirited and set in his ways, Jacques limits his customers to 13 regulars and frowns on outsiders whom he contemptuously refers to as “walk-ins,” chasing them out with a bottle of vodka with a stream of ketchup in it in response for a request for a Bloody Mary with organic tomato sauce.

After his fifth heart attack, he finds himself sharing a room with homeless young Lucas (Dano) who is as kindly as Jacques is curmudgeonly. Jacques having a brush with mortality knows that his body will not sustain his lifestyle for much longer, and has begun giving thoughts to his legacy. He realizes that one thing he wants to remain after he shuffles off this mortal coil is his bar and determines to take in Lucas, who has nowhere else to go, as the heir apparent to his grandly named but less impressive on the inside House of Oysters.

Lucas, who was in the hospital after attempting suicide, is amiable enough to the idea although much of Jacques’ worldview is puzzling to him. “Never be nice,” he growls after Lucas treats one of the regulars with kindness. The world according to Jacques is a harsh place full of people who will take advantage of every fracture of weakness that your facade displays and to Jacques kindness equals weakness.

Lucas for his part is learning the niceties of bartending as well. “A good bartender always knows what his customer wants before he even knows it,” says the old school Jacques and Lucas very much takes this to heart. For his part, Lucas teaches Jacques that the way to make it through life isn’t necessarily through uncompromising adherence to one’s principles.

Into this mix one rainy night comes April (Le Besco), a stewardess afraid of flying. This is an egregious violation of Jacques’  longstanding “no women allowed” rule for the bar. This is enough to get his erstwhile protégé banished from the bar along with April, a fellow lost soul Lucas has fallen in love with. But what will become of Jacques’ legacy?

Icelandic director Kari, best known for his indie film Noi the Albino is shooting for a grimy look. The movie looks like it was filmed through a lens that hadn’t been cleaned in years. This is meant (I think) to be more of an allegory or a fable than something realistic and true to life despite the gritty feel. For one thing, I can’t imagine any hospital letting a kid who’d just attempted suicide just walk out of a hospital without at least some sort of plan for him to stay in a safe environment, not in a dingy old bar with an old man who just might be psychotic.

Cox is one of those character actors who almost never turns in a bad performance even when handed a turkey of a script. This one has quite a few flaws in it and inhabits the bar with eccentrics right out of the Lovable Movie Drunks for Dummies book. Cox interacts with all of them as if they were written by Shakespeare.

I tend to blow hot and cold with Dano. He has turned in some fantastic performances but also a few groaners as well. Here he is on the good side; his character has clearly been wounded deeply by some unnamed trauma in the past and while he doles out random (and sometimes not-so-random) acts of kindness, he sees himself as unworthy of life. Some of the kindest people I’ve ever known are the hardest on themselves.

There aren’t really any big laughs here and that might well be by design. One of the faults I have with this movie is I don’t think they are set on whether this needs to be a comedy or a drama and so tries for something in between. Not that combining the two can’t be done well, but I think the movie would have been better-served at picking a path and sticking with it.

I can recommend just about any movie with Brian Cox in it and a lot of them with Pau Dano in them. This one I think has just enough depth to it to be worth a look-see for those who haven’t caught it yet but I wouldn’t recommend putting too much effort into it; there isn’t enough here to make it worth digging to find.

WHY RENT THIS: Good performances from Cox and Dano. Gritty where it needs to be.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ceaselessly drab. Quirky more than funny.

FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of cursing and a disturbing image.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kari, born in Paris to Icelandic parents who moved him back to their home country at the age of three, is also a member of the band Slowblow.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: As with most Magnolia home releases, there is an HD-Net making-of special.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $343,818 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Extra Man

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: X-Men

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