Friday, April 30, 2010

Grumpy Old School New York: The Good Heart

Jacques owns one of those seedy old man bars that you have probably been too intimidated to enter. Those instincts were not wrong. Jacques chases out “walk-in’s” with ill-concealed contempt. As a mean old curmudgeon, he does not have anyone to inherit his dive. Unfortunately, the clock is ticking for the irascible tavern-keeper in Icelandic director Dagur Kári’s English language indie drama, The Good Heart (trailer here), which opens in New York today.

On heart attack number five and counting, Jacques’s ticker is basically held together by duct tape and spite. While he is a misogynistic misanthrope, he takes an odd liking to the suicidal homeless man sharing his room. Before the gentle Lucas realizes it, he finds himself in Jacques’s eccentric management trainee program, learning how to be surly barkeep from the master. Then he breaks Jacques’s one cardinal rule, sheltering the deeply distressed April, a beautiful woman of vaguely European origins.

Despite the formulaic fusion of comedy and drama, Heart is one of the better indie films of recent vintage. Its dark, grimy atmosphere is quite evocative, perhaps reflecting the severe Nordic sensibilities of the director. In a way, it is a valentine to old school Old New York. Unfortunately the third act culminates in a bit of a groaner, but up until that point, Heart is a sharply drawn drama with some memorably pointed dialogue (the film’s best bit though is given away in the trailer).

Funny and infuriating in equal measure, Brian Cox always hits the perfect pitch as Jacques. Frankly, he is the movie. Watching him snarl and putter around the bar might not sound like ambitious filmmaking, but it is entertaining. While Paul Dano is a bit wooden as the meek Lucas, the luminous Isild Le Besco is quite haunting as the waifish April, adding an interesting dimension to the film.

Unlike so many indie films, Heart has a bit of an edge and a fresh protagonist. Ultimately, when
Kári finally lets it slide into sentimentality, it loses its way. Until that point, it has real merit as a tart-tongued character-driven comedy-drama. Modest but engaging, Heart opens today (4/30) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.