Dir-scr: Dagur Kári. US-Iceland-France-Denmark-Germany. 2010. 94mins
Brian Cox and Paul Dano, costars in Michael Cuesta’s arresting L.I.E., reteam for Icelandic filmmaker Dagur Kári in the form of The Good Heart, a spare drama of unlikely mentorship that makes good use of its two actors’ talents and rapport, but ultimately comes off as a self-conscious collection of grimy, fringe-dwelling “types.”
The Good Heart is an airtight cinematic diorama that seems to subscribe to the notion that its underclass trappings and characters automatically and inherently elevate it to the level of something artful and interesting.
The rising profiles of its two stars — including Dano’s lauded turn in There Will Be Blood, and Cox’s commercial recognisability from X2 and two of the three Jason Bourne films — will help lend Stateside arthouse intrigue and credibility to what is otherwise a fairly thinly sketched tale of fated emotional awakening.
The slovenly, irascible owner of a New York dive bar, Jacques (Cox) is given to nebulous proclamations (“A bar should never change its name, no matter what goes wrong in the world”), a strong distaste for walk-in customers, and all other manner of irrational outbursts. Jacques has a bad ticker, and after crossing paths in the hospital with Lucas (Dano), a homeless simpleton who’s recently tried to kill himself, Jacques gives Lucas a place to stay and decides he will eventually bequeath his bar to him.
The pair’s burgeoning partnership — already an odd mix, given Jacques’ brusqueness and Lucas’ relative openheartedness — is further put to the test when a distraught airline attendant, April (Isild Le Besco), shows up seeking shelter.
Writer-director Kári, who made his name with the critical success of his 2003 feature debut Noi the Albino (Nói Albínói), crafts a convincing backdrop, using a dank color palette that matches the angry, oppressive force of Jacques’ personality. But he doesn’t seem to know much of what to do to connect his narrative start and end points.
Any potential, either dramatic or comedic, of barfly supporting characters is wasted, and Jacques and Lucas take to one another so quickly that their relationship seems apocryphal. The jammed-in romance between Lucas and April (an utter cipher who quickly proposes marriage) additionally strains credulity.
Cox and Dano hold attention courtesy of their deft touches with bombast and stillness, respectively. But The Good Heart is an airtight cinematic diorama that seems to subscribe to the notion that its underclass trappings and characters automatically and inherently elevate it to the level of something artful and interesting.
Production companies: Zik Zak Productions, Magnolia Pictures
US distribution: Magnolia Pictures
International sales: Wild Bunch
Producers: Skuli Fr. Malmquist, Thor Sigurjónsson
Executive producers: Robin O’Hara, Scott Macaulay, Sigurjon Sighvatsson
Cinematography: Rasmus Videbæk
Production designer: Hálfdan Pedersen
Editor: Andri Steinn Gudmundsson
Music: Dagur Kári. Orri Jonsson
Main cast: Brian Cox, Paul Dano, Isild Le Besco