There's a kind of wicked irony around every corner in "The Good Heart," where nothing and everything turns out exactly as it should in this story of second chances and the duck that got away.
The film stars Brian Cox and Paul Dano as two mismatched souls who end up in the same hospital room, both having barely cheated death and only one happy about it. But instead of two ships passing in the night, circumstances conspire to toss them into the same lifeboat, metaphorically speaking, of course, since the story unfolds mostly in a New York City dive bar of the seediest sort.
It's a quirky film from writer-director Dagur Kari, whose off-center indie sensibilities have played well on the international film festival circuit. Here, the 36-year-old filmmaker is playing around with drama and comedy. And if you're in the mood for a splash of dark drama, a bit of humor, very dry, on the rocks, with a twist, this will come close to satisfying.
The journey begins with Cox's bitter bar owner Jacques felled by yet another heart attack and doing his best not to follow doctor's orders. He enlists Dano's Lucas to unplug the room's smoke detector.
Lucas, whose suicide attempt succeeded only in getting him temporarily off the streets, where he's been living in a cardboard box, is happy to oblige. He's a gentle soul and the exact opposite of Jacques, who's got a bark and a bite.
Although the smoke alarm incident will turn into a fiasco — Lucas is very good at failing — Jacques decides to take him in and teach him the bar trade. It becomes a sort of tortured Pygmalion tale in which espresso making must be mastered along with the rest of the bar's house rules — no women, no walk-ins, no gentrification.
Kari has given them a world so encrusted in grit that the bar doesn't seem that much of an improvement over Lucas' cardboard shanty. But then that's one of the morals of this story: What passes for success can be as dingy and decrepit as what passes for failure.
He does allow in a few rays of sunshine — the duck Jacques is fattening for Christmas dinner turns out to be a charmer, as is April (Isild Le Besco), the beautiful waif with a winsome smile who washes up one rainy day.
The Paris-born, Icelandic-raised filmmaker — a background that no doubt factors into his eclectic style — has a firmer hand on the visuals and the script than he does on his actors, sometime allowing them to drift toward the operatic.
The enigmatic grace Dano brought to both his silent teen in "Little Miss Sunshine" and the girded for salvation preacher in " There Will Be Blood" does help him modulate Lucas. Jacques, meanwhile, who is forever throwing punches even when no one's gaming for a fight, could have benefited from a bit more of the nuance Cox has brought to so many roles over the years.
Despite those occasional palpitations, "The Good Heart" beats on, and Kari keeps finding unexpected ways to ruffle feathers, the Christmas duck's included.
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