One of the most crucial elements of Phil Morrison's style is his ability to summon an incisive sense of place, lush with geographical and social nuance. His depiction of his own stomping ground, North Carolina, in his stunning debut, Junebug, ached with sadness, a visual extension of the film's brittle nostalgia for home in the face of fractured traditionalism. For the director's long-awaited follow-up, All Is Bright, the setting, for the most part, is a small patch of land in the middle of a triangular intersection in Park Slope (the film begins and ends in Quebec). The pace and geography of New York City is subdued here, marked by a small-town friendliness, and similarly, there's a sense of softness to Morrison's depiction of returning and reunion, which has become his chief thematic concern in his two features to date.
In the case of All Is Bright, the reunion isn't particularly joyous. Out on parole after four years in jail for robbery, Dennis (Paul Giamatti) arrives at the front door of his home, only to find out his ex-wife, Therese (Amy Landecker), has told their daughter that he died of cancer. Dennis's naturally splenetic disposition isn't helped by the revelation that Therese has also started a serious romance with Rene (Paul Rudd), Dennis's friend and the man partially responsible for his incarceration. As an act of attrition, Rene alleviates Dennis's worries of employment, taking him as his business partner on an annual holiday sojourn across the border to sell Christmas trees in Brooklyn.
It's a familiar dynamic, and Melissa James Gibson's script places the issue of criminal rehabilitation at the drama's center. The filmmakers make a clear delineation as to how Dennis and Rene, both struggling to go straight, view employment. Whereas Dennis reads up on trees and uses knowledge to become a better salesman, Rene remains a dull romantic and goofball without any sense of responsibility, and the film, in a sense, revolves around Dennis's attempts to prepare Rene to be the good husband and father he never could be. And though Giamatti evokes a natural, hard-bitten sarcasm and melancholy in Dennis, the role of Rene remains detrimentally underdeveloped, leaving Rudd to play the lovable idiot, which, to be fair, he does quite well.
There's a compelling shagginess to the story and to both Giamatti and Rudd's mugs, and there are moments where the bluesy drama between the leads exudes the effortless charm of a Jerry Shatzberg film. But the hash-out between Rene and Dennis is detoured and diluted by a handful of superfluous interactions with stray, impoverished New Yorkers, most prominently Dennis's unlikely kinship with a Russian maid (Sally Hawkins) housesitting for her wealthy employers. The visual sense of place and community conveys a mood of alienation and uncertainty, but the story is essentially a cutie pie, a gruff but sweet-natured Christmas tale for a predetermined alternative sect.
All Is Bright remains engaging, for the most part, but most of the big narrative turns feel both predictable and forced, and at odds with the natural charms of the cast. Even Morrison's most elegant stylistic gestures (a smart sense of movement in tight frames, a few beautiful and unexpected zoom-ins) feel machinated or awkward in his New York. Returning from a quiet eight-year hiatus, Morrison depicts a man's rough ingratiation back into a trade after years in exile that feels vaguely personal, but there's a constant sense that the film's pleasant oddness and solemnity are used to avert from some of the film's darker implications, about what it feels like to come home to a place you've never known.