Thursday, April 22, 2010

"The Good Heart" - Movie Review

Last night in my movie class, we saw a drama from Iceland called "The Good Heart", starring Brian Cox and Paul Dano.  

When a dying old man meets a young homeless man, he takes the drifter under his wing to teach him his business -- but will the old man be able to stick around long enough to impart all his wisdom?

After suffering a heart attack, Jacques (Cox), an aging bartender from New York City, is rushed to a local hospital where he meets Lucas (Dano), a young homeless man who just attempted suicide.  Neither one of them having friends or family in this world, they bond, forming an unlikely friendship because their personalities are polar opposites:  while Lucas is warm, friendly and trusting, Jacques is a misanthropic, distant, angry, bitter misogynist.  Knowing that Lucas has nowhere to go when he's discharged, Jacques convinces him to come live with him, where he will earn his keep working in the old man's bar.  Understanding that he doesn't have too much longer to live, Jacques explains to Lucas that when he goes, he will leave the bar to Lucas so that the young man will then have the skills necessary to run the business by himself.  Realizing that he doesn't have any other options in life, Lucas decides to take up Jacques on his offer.  

Being fed, clothed and boarded by Jacques, Lucas begins training at the bar, a dreary, depressing place, where he begins to learn about all of the sad regular customers who populate the place almost daily.   During the course of this training, Jacques' curmudgeonliness gradually and inevitably makes itself abundantly apparent.  As a result of this, Lucas is not sure that he will be able to tolerate working with the old man; likewise, Jacques isn't certain that Lucas will be up to the rigorous tasks of running what essentially seems to be something of a dive bar.  Eventually, Jacques has yet another heart attack, once again forcing him to be admitted to the exact same hospital.  While there, he meets with the cardiologist in charge, who offers to put him on a waiting list to get a heart transplant; Jacques consents, although he is forced to commit to some serious lifestyle changes and is aware that the possibility exists there may never actually be a replacement heart since someone of his blood type must die in order for it to even be considered.

As the Christmas holidays draw near, Jacques is contacted that a potential donor heart exists and that he must get to the hospital immediately, leaving Lucas to mind the bar all by himself.  By now, however, Lucas has learned enough about the business that Jacques doesn't have too many concerns about leaving the young man alone.  Once admitted, it turns out to be a false alarm -- although the donor heart itself did exist, it was not really healthy enough to be able to transplant into Jacques.  Upon hearing this news, Jacques experiences more heart failure, so instead of discharging him, the physicians must now keep him admitted to the hospital for treatment and observation.  While recuperating in the hospital, will he live long enough to see a donor heart that can be transplanted into his body?  

This movie is about as bleak as you can get -- not terribly surprising when you remember that it was made in Iceland, a nation whose populace is supposed to be known for precisely that type of demeanor.  What was surprising, however, was not only how good the movie was, but also, how much I enjoyed it, despite a strongly bittersweet ending.  Make no mistake, this is a very unusual movie, to say the least, yet I do recommend it -- but not without some caveats.  For one thing, it can be really oddball at times and the characters can sometimes be quite unlikeable, or at the very least, rather peculiar.  Another reason is that I'm given to understand that when it played at certain film festivals, it garnered some rather strong reactions -- not all of which were favorable.  According to our instructor, people either liked it quite a good deal or hated it with a passion -- there was very little room in between the two.  That said, most of the class really did seem to enjoy the movie considerably, myself included.

There are many details about the movie which I omitted in my description of the story, above.  This was partly because of the obvious reason that I didn't want to include spoilers, but also because of space and time considerations -- quite frankly, I found that it was necessary to leave some things out in order to write a reasonably concise story description.  Among the things that did not get included was the rather interesting character arcs for both Jacques and Lucas.  At approximately two - thirds to three - quarters of the way through the film, it appears as though the two effectively switch personalities.  After suffering numerous heart attacks and finally being placed on a waiting list for a new heart, Jacques becomes Mr. Softy; similarly, following some rather painful life lessons being learned, Lucas toughens up considerably.  Another compelling aspect is this extremely weird love story that's thrown in which gives the impression it will be used divisively between Jacques and Lucas.  And then, of course, there's the duck -- but please don't get me started on that one right now.
The post - screening interview was with the film's director, although this wasn't planned to be the case -- he wound up being forced to stay in New York City following his promotional tour for the movie as a result of all of that volcanic ash from Iceland clouding up the airways and preventing flights between Europe and the U.S.  This turned out to be to our advantage, however, because he was able to provide great insight about the movie.  He told us that while the story itself took place in New York City, most of the movie was shot in Reykjavik, Iceland.  In a 42 - day shoot, there were 30 days in Iceland (mostly interiors), 10 days in New York City (mostly exteriors) and two days in the Dominican Republic (which doubled for Martinique).  This was only the director's third film; as an Icelander, only one of his movies (the first) was shot with Icelandic dialog.  The second was in Danish and this one is entirely in English.