Dagur Kari's The Good Heart opens with Lucas, a shaggy-haired young homeless guy, sharing dinner with a kitten and singing it to sleep. We then meet Jacques, a crabby bar owner who gets so angered by his "relaxation tape" that he literally gives himself a heart attack. These are not encouraging scenes. They don't exactly portend a lot of subtle shadings in the forthcoming picture. I'm not quite sure what to make of The Good Heart, primarily because its intentions are so unclear. It's supposed to be a comedy, I guess, but it ain't funny; when it tries to move us, it's even less successful. It's a singularly unlikeable picture, shot through a washed-out, desaturating haze that tamps down the color and amps up the drabness.
The set-up is that Jacques (Brian Cox) and Lucas (Paul Dano) end up sharing a hospital room, and Jacques takes something of a shine to the young man. He has no family and no friends, and this was his fifth heart attack, so he decides to take Lucas under his wing and teach him how to run the bar so that he can leave it to him. I may not frequent enough New York bars, but it would seem that if there's one guy you don't want to learn the business from, it's Jacques; he abuses any new customer that wanders into the establishment, since he apparently makes enough to pay the rent and bills from his half-dozen or so regulars, all "colorful characters" straight out of Central Casting.
These scenes are painfully tedious and one-note, punctuated by would-be comic interludes like the long scene where Jacques tells Lucas about how broccoli makes him fart. The whole enterprise is overdone and boorish, and then it takes a whimsical turn, which doesn't play either. April (Islid Le Besco) wanders into the bar one rainy night, and, through an improbable series of events, her and Lucas wind up falling in love and getting married, which drives a wedge between he and Jacques, who hates everyone so she's no exception, but maybe he doesn't, and oh who cares.
The picture is ultimately undone by our inability to engage with any of the characters onscreen. In Lucas, we have yet another of Dano's sullen, withdrawn loners; I'm not saying he's a bad actor (There Will Be Blood makes a compelling case to the contrary), but on the heels of Little Miss Sunshine, Gigantic, and Explicit Ills, I'm beginning to suspect that maybe he's not the most versatile one. His sole acting choice here appears to have been to develop an irritating little habit of standing and walking with his hands up and tightened, like Mr. Burns. Cox is always fun to watch, but he's way overdoing it here--it's an undisciplined, overcooked performance, the kind of thing he usually comes up with when not guided by a strong director. His blustering interpretation, and the lack of subtlety in the writing, keeps us from giving a damn about Jacques, which is a real problem when we're supposed to care about him in the end. The script gives him a couple of softer beats in the third act, but by then, it's too little, too late. Le Besco makes no impression whatsoever with in her one-dimensional role; I can't even recall what she looks like, much less anything about her performance.
Everything about The Good Heart is forced--the atmosphere, the humor, the performances, and the ending, which is so obvious that it borders on insulting. In many ways, it feels like the result of an Indie Filmmaker's Mad Lib; it has all the ingredients (actors with street cred, gritty look, and a quirky, devil-may-care attitude about narrative), but no soul, no momentum, and no payoff. This is the kind of indie that makes moviegoers long for a big, empty studio picture, full of pretty people and lots of explosions.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.