TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL: Phil Morrison blazed onto the scene with Junebug (2005) and managed to introduce the cinematic world to the blissful abilities with Oscar-nominated actress Amy Adams. With a near eight year stretch, he has finally taken his directorial chair yet again to bring the whimsical and fascinating Almost Christmas with Paul Giamatti and Paul Rudd.
The film opens up with Dennis (Giamatti), a recently released ex-convict that learns that his now ex-wife has told their daughter that he died in prison. To make matters worse, his partner-in-crime Rene is now dating her with intentions of marriage. With no job, home, or any real place to go, Rene’s guilt partners with Dennis’ opportunities and the two French Canadians embark on a trip to New York City to sell Christmas trees just before the holidays. During the daily antics and struggle to sell, eat, and sleep out of a wooden trailer, a dentist’s wife (Sally Hawkins) presents a possible opportunity for them to learn more than just the meaning of the holidays.
Paul Giamatti continues to elevate himself to one of the greatest working actors today. As Dennis, he’s utterly believable and encounters a new side of himself as an actor that is both funny and completely genuine. Giamatti’s dedication to the craft allows him to continue to do what he normally achieves with all of his off-beat characters that are dreadful on the inside with a kind core that the audience can easily access.
As Rene, Paul Rudd continues his attempt at off-beat comedies on the independent circuit and presents himself as a very capable and gifted actor. His performance, which naturally brings many of the film’s biggest laughs, is one of the Rudd’s most surprising portrayals to date. Rudd shows vulnerability, skill, and a promise of a very endearing and powerful performance somewhere in his future. While the role is not a full-out home-run for the actor, he is more than average and presents some of the film’s beautiful highlights.
Golden Globe Winner Sally Hawkins is amazingly charming and wondrous in her role. With her delightful and appealing accent partnered with her cutely delivered monologue about “Fortune of Wheel,” it’s another strong turn from the gifted actress that has yet to take off in the big Hollywood manner as of yet. Hawkins is absolutely hilarious.
Written by Melissa James Gibson, Almost Christmas is an incredibly original concept with a slight twist on a genre you may feel like you’ve seen before. The actions and story temperature are unhurried and at times cold, but ultimately is what makes the film succeed. There are some off-beat choices in character behaviors and an unrelated qualm about how someone should act in firm situations, but for a first-time screenwriter, it’s a great plateau for her to step off. Gibson has only been credited as a writer on the show, “The Americans.” She constructs authentic characterizations and gives them all an identity for the actor’s to latch on to.
Phil Morrison’s direction and choices aren’t as bold or as inventive as his styles in Junebug. The story doesn’t lend itself to those traits that made him a quiet sensation in the mid-2000s. He lends himself to a more defined genre of filmmaking that doesn’t go for the big moments or audience reactions. It’s a undemanding yet solid directorial work. The film’s narrative is paced at a leisured speed, which may take some out of the story. It does take a minute to lift off but when it gets going, Almost Christmas has you hooked. It’s a fine film event for movie-goers and a possible contender for year-end citations by independent groups.
OSCAR CHANCES: Lead Actor for Paul Giamatti, Supporting Actress for Sally Hawkins, Original Screenplay for Melissa James Gibson