"How did I die?"
In "Almost Christmas," a Canadian career thief comes home from a four-year prison stint to find that he no longer exists. While Dennis (Paul Giamatti) was away, his wife, Therese, told their young daughter he had died of an unspecified cancer and fell in love with another man: Dennis' former accomplice and the only person who can help him go "straight."
Rene (Paul Rudd) has turned away from a life of crime since the botched robbery that sent Dennis to prison -- a heist, we later learn, that was meant to be a two-man job until Rene backed out. Therese (Amy Landecker) gives Dennis almost no hope of reclaiming his place in their family, but Dennis is determined to show her he's more than just a thief and to that end demands that Rene find him honest work: It's the least he can do.
Director Phil Morrison's sophomore effort takes us from backwoods Quebec to Brooklyn, where Dennis and Rene sell Christmas trees on a desolate lot in the no-man's land between Greenpoint and Williamsburg, warming themselves over a fire fueled by severed hockey sticks and signage stolen from a competing tree vendor. Business is painfully slow at first, but the men's luck begins to turn after Dennis makes his first sale to a peculiar Russian woman who works for a pair of wealthy dentists and is looking after her employers' well-appointed home while they vacation in "the hole of Jackson."
It's lucky for the filmmakers that Sally Hawkins inhabits the story's most transparent narrative device: In a less thoughtful and expressive actor's hands, Olga might have come off as a farcical stereotype; instead, she is winning as a broken-winged guardian angel. Indeed, while “Almost Christmas” purports to be a buddy tragicomedy, at times it feels like a Dickensian ghost story. Dennis is, after all, a dead man -- one whose former livelihood depended on his ability to go undetected and who studies his daughter from the invisible margins like Ebenezer Scrooge watching Blind Man's Bluff. It's not immediately clear what Olga sees in him, but what's important is that she sees him at all. "You must have Russian blood," she tell Dennis at one point. "We do what we have to do.”
Olga animates the inevitable themes of class and birthright that underpin any hard-luck tale. Through her, we see how the other half lives, though we never actually see the other half: “Almost Christmas” keeps its focus on the have-nots -- the so-called nobodies that are typically relegated to the dark environs. Dennis and Rene sell $200 Christmas trees and a lot of them, but the only patrons besides Olga who make an impression are the family who can't afford the asking price and a man who turns out to have something in common with the dealers.
Melissa James Gibson's script is generous with carefully crafted banter and upbeat turns that save the story from drowning in its despair, though it may not always see the forest for the trees -- especially when it comes to Dennis and Rene's conflict, which is never satisfactorily mined or reconciled. But Gibson's background as a playwright is put to good use, as much of the narrative takes place on a single street corner that acts like a stage.
Giamatti and Rudd are pretty much just as we're used to seeing them -- Rudd's Rene is good-hearted and unreliable, with that vaguely disingenuous wide-eyed innocence he can't seem to outgrow. Giamatti's Dennis is a luckless almost-misanthrope who thinks he deserves better than the lot he has been dealt. Still, we've seen Giamatti ("Sideways," “Barney's Version”) more intolerable in less desperate situations.
The people we meet in “Almost Christmas” may not have a lot to live for, but they possess a baseline civility that feels essential to their survival. It's as though there has been an unspoken agreement not to turn on each other, because then they'll have nowhere else to turn. “Almost Christmas” is at its best in the early reunion scenes, particularly between Therese and Dennis as they communicate through furiously scribbled notes held up to her kitchen window. Though Dennis' sudden arrival is hardly welcome, Therese receives him with as much kindness as she can bear, and it gives us permission to do the same.
Morrison hasn't made a film since 2005's “Junebug,” his extraordinary feature debut about a troubled southern homecoming (Morrison and “Junebug” screenwriter Angus MacLaughlan hail from North Carolina; “Almost Christmas” scribe Gibson is Canadian). Though the circumstances are less dire, the stakes feel much higher in “Junebug” than in “Almost Christmas”: While Morrison's first feature is rapturously devastating, his follow-up is sometimes just sad.
“Almost Christmas” suffers from a major misstep or two: In order to make a point about Dennis' devotion to a daughter he may never know, the filmmakers take a detour that defies reason and borders on the absurd. But it leaves us on an emotionally honest note, offering no more about the fate of these shadowy characters than we have a right to know.