A belated follow-up by Phil Morrison to his 2005 feature “Junebug,” “Almost Christmas” is an odd-couple two-hander pairing two Pauls, Rudd and Giamatti, as ex-partner thieves from rural Quebec. Giamatti plays Dennis, a morose, down-on-his-luck loser just out of the pen, while Rudd is Rene, a cheerful, devil-may-care optimist who stole the affections of Giamatti’s ex-wife and daughter. As the two embark on a month-long trip to New York City to sell Christmas trees, this engaging if somewhat underwhelming tale of unlikely redemption builds a funny-sad web of intersecting interactions around its strong central perfs. Result could translate into a solidly marketable holiday release.
At the outset, Giamatti’s Dennis finds himself without money, gainful employment or future prospects; as he soon discovers, he’s also completely estranged from his former family, since his wife, Therese (Amy Landecker), has told their young daughter, Michi (Tatyana Richaud) that he died of cancer. Since there are no local jobs and, according to his cheery parole officer (Peter Hermann), he can’t leave town, Dennis guilts his erstwhile safe-cracking buddy and romantic rival, Rene, into letting him secretly tag along on Rene’s annual Christmas-tree sales trip to Gotham.
The two camp out on a barren triangle of scruffy land at a quiet Brooklyn intersection. After Dennis scares off some busy tree-selling competitors with a hacksaw, they settle down to business with a decided lack of success. Enter Olga (Sally Hawkins, ultra-memorable), a piano-playing Russian free spirit who buys a pine from Dennis and virtually adopts him, making him tacos and giving him showers, clean clothes and money. She remains unfazed when he absconds with a fancy candy dish (plus candies) from the upscale apartment she keeps for a couple of dentists.
Unlike the halfway reformed Rene, Dennis seems to be a congenital thief. Though he’s sworn to go straight to win back his family, he steals as naturally as he breathes. Hiding in the back of the truck at a border crossing, he instinctively lifts the wallet of the guard searching the vehicle. Thrown out of a restaurant, he palms a pastry mid-ejection. And his final act of salvation will come in the shape of a semi-miraculous heist.
As the holidays approach — and they are never far off, given composer Graham Reynolds’ darkly jaunty, eclectically arranged Christmas-themed soundtrack — Rene begins to spin tall tales in the voice and accent of a Quebecois lumberjack, while Dennis steals a book on evergreens and dazzles the clientele with his spruce-vs.-Douglas-fir know-how. Trees begin to sell like hotcakes, but unresolved issues between Dennis and Rene still simmer.
Rudd subtly dumbs down his charm here; his Rene, though sincere, still seeks superficial, feel-good fixes and avoids self-examination. Any change hits Rene like a ton of bricks, sending him on extended offscreen walkabouts. Ironically, it’s Giamatti’s Dennis, emerging from beneath the actor’s patented angry, self-pitying bitterness, who winds up the more convincingly rehabilitated soul.
Scripter Melissa James Gibson (FX’s “The Americans”) has fashioned an intimate, epiphany-filled scenario far less complex than Angus MacLachlan’s extended-family screenplay for “Junebug.” Contrasted with that film’s organic North Carolina settings, Brooklyn here functions purely as a place of exile. Morrison has effectively created an extremely limited world, giving lenser W. Mott Hupfel III only a few visual options: a few square feet of dirt, the interior of a truck and Olga’s dentists’ place.
Even when the film cuts between Dennis and his French-speaking wife and daughter during during a phone call, it only underscores the utter isolation of Giamatti’s hangdog character. Yet everyone who passes through the two principals’ tiny space gets absorbed into their story: There’s Rene’s Haitian helpmate (Colman Domingo), Olga with her bottomless bottle of vodka, and two teens who take sides when Rene and Dennis’ love for the same woman explodes in bitter, increasingly absurd recriminations.