Can a single performance save a film? Can an otherwise mediocre movie be made watchable and even enjoyable due to a solitary actor or actress nailing their character so perfectly? The short answer is yes. The somewhat longer answer is below.
Lucas (Paul Dano) sits long haired and homeless in an empty lot where he plays with a small kitten before the two crawl into a nearby cardboard box and settle in for the night. Jacques (Brian Cox) runs a small, dark bar called House of Oysters where he serves only his regulars, avoids extraneous chatter, and boots them out on their collective ass at closing time. Per doctor’s orders he tries to wind down at night with relaxation tapes, but he gets irritated and enraged instead and has a heart attack. These two solitary souls cross paths at the hospital where Lucas has been brought after attempting suicide, and Jacques decides to take the boy under his wing. His motive isn’t an altruistic one. Instead, his sole reasoning is that he wants someone to maintain his bar in the exact same way after he’s gone. Not surprisingly, the apprenticeship hits a few snags along the way in the form of Lucas’ unstoppable kindness and the arrival of a wet, Russian stewardess…
The Good Heart succeeds (for the most part) for one reason. Brian Cox is a whirlwind of personality and character and a fantastic actor. The tone of the film moves back and forth from comedy to drama, and Cox handles the moves and the role beautifully. He manages to turn what could have been a cranky caricature into a flesh and blood character. Lucas may be the sweet and gentle soul of the film, but the heart truly is Jacques. He’s also extremely funny thanks to a combination of entertaining dialogue and Cox’s own comedic abilities. There’s a brief bit about broccoli being the physical embodiment of a fart… damn funny stuff.
Paul Dano’s Lucas is slightly less successful except for when he’s interacting directly with Jacques. One training session sees a stranger enter the bar and ask for a Bloody Mary… Jacques pours him a glass of vodka and then squirts in some ketchup. “We don’t do walk-ins,” he tells Lucas. The golden rule of the bar is “familiar not friendly.” These kinds of scenes work as the two play off each other with Cox taking the lead, but Dano on his own seems confused by his own character. Lucas is a generally inexperienced young man in an unfamiliar world, but occasionally Dano lets him slip into a Rain Man-like shtick and then just as easily returns to normalcy. Lucas is most alive when dealing with Jacques’ rules and attitude, and Dano does a fine job portraying the dueling attitudes of calmness and frustration.
The movie has two major flaws though, and both come from writer/director Dagur Kari’s script. First, it’s clear from early on how the story is going to play out and end. Cantankerous old man and young understudy, a clash of personalities, until begrudgingly the set-in-his-ways old bastard warms up to the kid… there’s nothing new here, and nothing new is really even attempted. And the setup leads to an inevitable conclusion that would have seemed more original and fresh if it hadn’t been telegraphed much earlier in the film. The second, and more glaring, problem here is the character of April. Stephanie Szostak’s performance is fine, but the character is an utter mess. She appears wearing a flight attendant’s uniform after losing her job because she’s afraid to fly. The gag gets a chuckle, but it makes no sense. Nothing she does makes sense… she has no place to live and no belongings? It’s never made clear if she really falls for Lucas or just wants a shitty old roof over her head. She’s no more than a highly unrealistic narrative tool wielded by someone unfamiliar with its use.
The Good Heart plays it safe by sticking with a well-worn story and central character, and that predictability prevents the movie from being anything more than a mildly entertaining character piece. If an actor with less personality than Cox had starred the film would most likely be a disaster as the other roles never seem to gel into anyone worth caring about. But Cox is a marvel to watch, and he gives one of the more entertaining performances of the year. Is he enough of a reason to watch this movie? I say yes.
The Upside: Surprisingly funny at times (the broccoli bit made me pause the movie while I recovered); Brian Cox is fantastic; good dynamic between Cox and Paul Dano
The Downside: The character of April is completely unrealistic and feels very artificial; tonal shifts may be too jarring; ending is a bit too expected
On the Side: This is writer/director Dagur Kari’s first English language film.