The Good Heart is a bizarre, idiosyncratic co-production from Denmark, Germany, France and Iceland, with all the torpor such a combination suggests. The great character actor Brian Cox plays Jacques, a cranky, mean-spirited New York bartender with a mouth as foul as week-old garbage. Alcohol and chain-smoking have wreaked havoc on his health, but in the hospital, after his fifth coronary, he finds himself reluctantly sharing a room with a surly kid named Lucas (a sour-faced Paul Dano), who has been admitted after a failed suicide attempt. Homeless and without focus or purpose, Lucas finds himself locked in an oddball friendship with the thorny old man. Maybe Jacques feels his days are limited and his life is coming to an end. Anyway, he puts the young man to work in his bar and dedicates himself to teaching Lucas about life, with unexpected results. (Interestingly, the two actors shared a similar, if more twisted, dynamic in 2001’s dark, disturbing L.I.E., in which Mr. Cox played a pedophile and Mr. Dano a confused adolescent.)
Abetted by a thin story line and episodic screenplay, The Good Heart never goes anywhere important, but director Dagur Kári creates a spellbinding ambience. The seedy bar is so grim that even the dirt seems picturesque. The light from the wet street shining through the filthy windows, the awful music from the roll-top piano, the gritty clubhouse camaraderie among the drunks—it’s so artfully composed that you can smell the stale beer on the mahogany bar stools. Unfortunately, the film is an uneasy meld of TV sitcom and Eugene O’Neill. Jacques parks his new housemate in a room only one cut above a prison cell, with a bed so uncomfortable that Lucas sleeps on the wood floor. Cursing and ranting, the old man teaches him to make coffee, which Lucas gives away to the homeless. They bring home a white duck for Christmas dinner, which the kid names Estragon and keeps as a pet. Jacques scolds him for being friendly to the customers, and encourages hostility and arrogance. It’s basically a two-hander, with an assortment of drunks, lunatics and deadbeats who frequent the bar with their own individual quirks. The odd couple share their meager existence without much trajectory, until the arrival of a lost, distraught girl named April. When the naïve Lucas insists on marrying her, Jacques throws a tantrum and smashes up the bar, throwing all of his customers into the alley. Lucas displays all the animation of an oyster. April looks like a bagel. They make a perfect matched set. But this movie does not end there. Jacques gets placed on the waiting list for a heart transplant. April freshens up the dismal saloon with flowers and votives, which drives Jacques into another tantrum. “We’re not here to help people,” he says. “We’re here to destroy them.” It moves on, and so will you.
Waiting for something more than a scene from Cheers, we are treated to the goddamnedest parade of choke-provoking philosophical wisdom I’ve overheard in years. It goes like this: “Think of life as a coconut. It’s hard on the outside and if you don’t have the proper tools or the know-how, it can seem totally useless and futile. But if you know how to open it, there’s sweet juice inside. The key is not to keep the coconut to yourself once you learn how to open the coconut, but share the coconut with someone who has no coconut, and then you understand what happiness is.” Who could make up this stuff? Mr. Dano has two expressions—blank and clueless. I think he’s a terrible actor, but listening to dialogue like that and trying not to laugh out loud, who can blame him?
Through a buckled twist of cinematic fate, Jacques finds an organ donor (yes, we are forced to watch close-ups of a detailed heart transplant, oy vay) and becomes a changed man, totally (but not entirely convincingly) rejuvenated. It all ends on the island of Martinique, for reasons I will not reveal. This arcane experience is worth it only for the burnished lemon-wax polish of the cinematography and the fascinating work of Brian Cox. It’s a treat to watch him break up sentences, ending statements with a question mark, washing down homilies with his soup. One of the least likable characters in recent memory—irascible, but with moments of real tenderness—he’s the reason this strange movie takes on a perverse charm that is uniquely its own.
Running time: 95 minutes
Written and Directed by: Dagur Kári
Starring: Brian Cox, Paul Dano, Isild Le Besco
2 Eyeballs out of 4