I went in to watch this movie expecting it to be a lot more sugary, maybe some poor guys discover the meaning of Christmas and everything is glowing in the end.
I was wrong. Sort of.
This movie teaches you a few things if you're willing to see them: - Sometimes life just won't cut you a break, no matter how noble your intentions or how much you suffer or work - you may discover you're dedicated to goals that much surpass your personal well-being and give up any rewards if only you can see them fulfilled.
The storyline is simple: guy, Dennis (Paul Giamatti), gets out of prison, wife tells him to go away and announces that their daughter now thinks he's dead. Wife also announces that she's about to marry a good friend of his, Rene (Paul Rudd), just as soon as he gets his divorce. With no house, money, or family, Dennis asks Rene to take him to New York on his yearly tree selling trip.
Both men are resolute to not commit any felonies anymore – this becoming a comedic point because from the get go, they're not exactly law abiding. Dennis leaves the country although he's released under parole, and hides in the truck among the trees to pass customs. He threatens other sellers as soon as they arrive, steals petty stuff at any chance he gets.
When the season ends and they count the good money, they get robbed by a guy who earlier pretended to be blind – at which point by the way he had the funniest line in the movie. At the end they plan a robbery to the wealthy house where a woman they became friends with worked. They're not stealing what you'd expect, and I'll leave it at that.
Other commenter criticized the fact that they didn't put the money in the bank. Well, for one they're cons so they don't think that way, and then they're cons and have records, you can't just walk into a bank and then start sending funds to your account from another country.
It's the obscure/dark humor, hopeless and sad humor at the same time, combined with the survival situation to achieve relatively small, but unattainable goals, that give the movie its character.
Some characters are delicately crafted: the Russian woman they befriend is a simple house maid in some dentist's house. She is poor, and shares the same passion as Dennis' daughter – playing the piano.
Rene is added depth when his current wife announces she'll give him a divorce. He's not happy, he's not celebrating – he is devastated he didn't even take her on a honeymoon. Granted he's a hypocrite because he's trying to marry another woman, but still it was a different reaction from what you'd expect.
Dennis and Rene remain in a hanging-by-a-thread kind of relationship, and that thread is survival. Dennis, despite what you'd expect from an ex con, cares about his (ex)wife and daughter so much that he's willing to stick it out, and stick up for, with the guy who took them from him in order to give his daughter a gift that he promised in his mind, and in order to not make his wife suffer because of Rene's behavior. ("Why would I lie for him?")
While they're making a tree sale to 2 guys, Dennis actually has a breakdown about how Rene stole his wife and the 2 guys are strongly on his side and encourage him to do all that he can to get her back. That's the voice of the viewer, I'd say, because that's what other movies teach you to want. I like to interpret Dennis not following this path of action as the selfless choice of reason: his wife and daughter have been through a lot while he was in prison and managed to rebuild their lives. They seem happy and do not show signs of wanting him back. He realizes his fight to get them back will very likely be unsuccessful, and would add hardship to the wife's already tough time. So he chooses to step back (not without a few
desperation fits) – with the last gesture of getting his kid a piano, by any means. And by this gesture he does not aim to be the hero, to be lauded and acknowledged. He just wants to make his kid happy even without the reward of "good daddy".
I'm not surprised that the film has a low score and few reviews. It's not a general public type of film, and it's not an American type of film as it's not rewarding to watch - all things don't get fixed up by the end.
Both Pauls are remarkable in their roles, they make believable and deep characters. Sally Hawkins is funny and quirky as the Russian girl. I have nothing to say about Amy Landecker as the wife. This for me is also a good point of the movie: she's a regular woman with a kid and real problems, she's not a trophy.
The film has a nice offbeat rhythm that I enjoyed and that fits well with my understanding of how films should be (music too – but that has no place here). I hope there are viewers out there who feel the same.