REVIEW: The Good Heart Could Use Some Fresh Blood

Movieline Score: 6

A grimly modern fable with a giveaway title, The Good Heart wears it modest narrative intentions -- along with just about everything else -- on its sleeve. A regulation tale of bittersweet uplift involving a saintly young homeless man and a villainous codger with no apparent heirs and a nasty heart attack habit, the film aims not to surprise but to soothe you with the pleasure of its company, its variations on a familiar theme. Despite its capable leads and sturdy framework, in his American debut Icelandic writer and director Dagur Kári relies too heavily on the fleeting rewards of situation for the film to come together as an involving story.

Lucas (Paul Dano) and Jacques (Brian Cox) live in a New York of fairy tale-ish extremes: a hospital staff pools cash for Lucas after his suicide attempt; he returns to his cardboard squat to find that someone has strung his kitten up by its neck, just for kicks. Lucas has (or had) a kitten, so we know he's a soft touch; Jacques, by painfully glaring contrast, is a miserable son of a bitch who runs a dive bar and is driven, literally, into a heart-stopping rage by the voice on the self-affirmation tapes he listens to at night. He does have a German Shepherd, though, so he can't be all bad, something not immediately apparent to Lucas after the two men are wheeled into the same recovery room. More obvious to the viewer is how things will shake down between the vagrant and the transplant patient; for the slow learners among us, Kári has Lucas, grateful to be alive, vow to donate first his sperm and then his every organ to the hospital that helped nurse him back to health.

Both characters behave almost exclusively in broad strokes, which means that a haggard, snarling Cox has most of the fun while Dano amps up his baleful aspect, holding his hands in light fists at his hips -- ever-ready, it would seem, to throw a wholly inadequate punch. Having decided to make Lucas the heir to his foul-mouthed fiefdom, upon his own release from the hospital Jacques tracks him down and offers him room and board in exchange for his apprenticeship. That deadliest variety of misanthrope -- a loquacious one -- Jacques has an acid insult for everyone he meets; Lucas's instincts are open and generous to a fault (maybe hold onto that sperm for now). Yet any interest that contrast might have generated is exhausted by the time the duo leave the hospital. We're left to watch rather dully as Lucas, confronted time and again with Jacques's assholery, works up to a spluttering variation on, "What in the name of Jesus Louise Veronica Ciccone is wrong with you?"

The scenes of Jacques's dozen-or-so loyal patrons riffing over their ritual drinks on their regular stools afford the film some of its loosest and most organic moments, but Kári reverts instinctively to the security of cliché. The music actually stops when a non-regular makes the mistake of wandering into the bar ("We don't do walk-ins," Jacques hisses); a French stewardess (Isild Le Besco) fired for being afraid to fly happens by and becomes Lucas's love interest without delay, or really any flake of believability whatsoever. Kári also has the risky habit of setting up brief scenes for the sole purpose of showcasing his screenplay's darlings. During Jacques's follow-up visit to the hospital he delivers an impressive list of similarly themed complaints, all of which set up the punchline: "I feel like a goddamn thesaurus." Clever, but not really useful, especially in a film that firmly rejects back story: We never learn what landed Lucas on the street or what turned Jacques into such a three-ring rotter, although his passionate hatred of women is supposed to be a clue. They may seem nice, he warns, in one of many brittle aphorisms, "but underneath they're all the same universal bitch."

Visually The Good Heart's palette mimics the bloodless pallor of, you guessed it, someone in the most severe stages of heart disease, and the effect further flattens two characters trapped within their types. Cox and Dano (who were even more perversely matched in 2001's L.I.E.) struggle with the limited dimensions of the roles -- if not their dynamic, which is natural enough -- and many scenes play more like actor's exercises than lived behavior. By the time the big finish comes, and all of the important lessons have been learned and every last random detail dropped in the first act has come home to roost, there is curiously little satisfaction in seeing the color -- literally, of course -- return to Jacques's world.