In the opening moments of Icelandic filmmaker Dagur Kári’s New York City-set The Good Heart, angry old bartender Jacques (Brian Cox) literally gives himself a heart attack (his fifth) after becoming frustrated with a self relaxation audio tape.
At the hospital, he meets young, homeless suicide patient Lucas (Paul Dano), a Christ-like figure so overjoyed with his treatment by hospital staff that he offers to donate his organs, all of ‘em, on the spot, in lieu of financial payment.
Subtle it ain’t. In fact, The Good Heart is about as unsubtle as (bad) silent melodrama, and within minutes it reaches an undesirable trifecta: we know exactly where this is going, we cannot fathom the convoluted tracks it has to follow to reach that point, and we really don’t want it to get there. Obvious, unlikely, and highly unsatisfying.
Too bad, because this is a nicely-produced, Jarmusch/Kaurismaki-like little indie, quirky and atmospheric, populated by interesting faces and performances. It’s just the story – it hangs like a weight around the neck of the film, and drags everything down along the way.
So Jacques adopts the young man, teaches him his derisive world-weary ways and trains in the arts of tending bar and making coffee. And wouldja believe Lucas teaches Jacques a thing or two along the way?
The bar scenes are the best thing here, with the patrons – seen in quick snippets – always amusing even if they’re walking clichés: the ladies’ man, the one unlucky in love, the drunken, struggling writer, the silent guy. Jacques’ expressive German Shepherd is one of the main characters, too, though he completely disappears, without explanation, for the final act.
Towards the middle of the film, a pretty young woman dressed as a stewardess (French actress Isild Le Besco) wanders into the bar during a rainstorm, sobbing uncontrollably. The bar is closed, but Lucas can’t turn her away, and even obliges her request for a glass of champagne.
“I was a flight attendant,” she tells him, “but I got fired.” There’s a long, dramatic pause before she delivers the punchline everyone knows is coming but no one wants to hear: “because I was afraid of flying.” That sums up The Good Heart pretty nicely.
If there’s a reason to see the film, it’s Cox’s performance as the nasty ol’ S.O.B.: he’s highly entertaining, spouting an almost nonstop stream of vitriol whenever onscreen (even when he’s not saying it, you just know he’s thinking it.)
Dano, on the other hand, is given next to nothing to do with his underwritten character, and does nothing with it. The duo are reunited here almost a decade after Cox was the pedophile and Dano the object of his affection in Michael Cuesta’s powerful L.I.E.; their relationship here invites unintended comparison for anyone who has seen the earlier film.
Kári previously directed the popular and award-winning Noi the Albino, a film that showcased, at the very least, a filmmaker in control of his material. The same cannot be said here.
An early scene in The Good Heart features a young kitten hung by its neck in the alley; there’s no explanation as to who did it, or why, or what effect that has on Lucas – nor any connection to the plot whatsoever.
Kári knows this image has power, but he doesn’t seem to understand that power, or how to use it – he just throws it at us to get a quick reaction. It’s irresponsible, almost oblivious filmmaking, unfortunately representative of the film as a whole.