There's symbolism overload in "The Good Heart" -- Last Supper symbolism, "Waiting for Godot" symbolism, "The Iceman Cometh" symbolism. But the predominant symbols are coconuts and oysters. They are hard and unappetizing on the outside. But if you possess the knowledge and the tools to open them, they're nutritious, delicious; you might even find a pearl. Just like life, you might say.
Writer/director Dagur Kari's picaresque comedy-drama is mostly set in a seedy New York City bar, the sort of place where they'd yell at you to shut the door so you don't let all the smoke out. The Oyster Bar is a dive where the clientele is restricted to 13 regulars (just like in a certain da Vinci painting). It's the same crowd every day and night, dislocated men whose salvation comes from flocking together, rather than settling down with families. No walk-ins are permitted. The last stranger who joined these colorful mongrels asked for a Bloody Mary with organic tomato juice and got vodka with a big squeeze of ketchup.
Presiding over this boozy clubhouse is Jacques (Brian Cox), an aging sourpuss with a poetic soul. His commandments include No Fraternizing With Customers and Absolutely No Women. After his fifth heart attack, Jacques encounters mild-mannered would-be suicide Lucas (Paul Dano) in the next hospital bed. Since Lucas is homeless and Jacques has no one to operate the Oyster Bar after he dies, the curmudgeon makes the young man his apprentice. The two work together, forging an increasingly deep but uncertain friendship. Lucas teaches Jacques to be less pugnacious and Jacques warns Lucas against being so vulnerable. When Lucas begins challenging Jacques' rules, the owner threatens to expel his employee/heir from their gin-soaked Eden.
"The Good Heart" has an easygoing rhythm and not much plot. It's a likable throwback to a cycle of late 1960s-early-1970s buddy movies like "Midnight Cowboy," "The Last Detail" and "Scarecrow," that suggest how alienated men had become from the traditional institutions of marriage and family. Cox lends such an innate sense of gravity, intelligence and authenticity to every role he plays that it's difficult to think of a weak performance he's given. He makes a feast of Kari's pungent, theatrical dialogue. Cox is an alchemist. He can turn a throwaway joke about broccoli and intestinal gas into a little gem of caustic eloquence. As the character grows from perpetual annoyance to a sunnier worldview, Cox makes his reanimation a believable, joyful change of heart, rather than a labored bit of plot manipulation. He seems ennobled, not merely sentimentalized.
Dano's meek Lucas is not so successfully realized. He is a writerly conceit, a statistically improbable derelict with a heart of purest platinum. Dano's not able to turn middling writing into high art, but when he's performing an actors' duet with Cox, their dynamic is delightful. The supporting performances aren't bad, just too busy.
"The Good Heart" resorts to a phony, smashing 11th-hour twist that threatens to turn the movie back on itself, like parody. It's an unfortunate choice when it's served so well by gentle examination and affable character-based comedy. Happily, after the crisis, the film drifts out on a suitably poignant lower key.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186