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The Good Heart

Dir: Dagur Kari

Rating: 3.0/5.0

Magnolia Pictures

99 Minutes

In Icelandic writer/director Dagur Kari’s new film, The Good Heart, bars are places for men. Specifically, they’re places free of women (referred to casually as “bitches” who belong in patisseries), free of friendship and are places for destroying the health of their patrons- and that’s a good thing. The Good Heart thrusts two unlikely and alienated individuals together in such a bar, the owner Jacques, a man who defines curmudgeon and Lucas, a wayward homeless youth who he takes marginally under his wing. Their growing friendship and the precariousness of Jacques’ health drive the plot, but Kari chooses to it move at is own pace.

Perhaps the world’s foremost portrayer of loud elderly assholes, Brian Cox, plays Jacques as a bitter man obsessed with a seemingly self-made list of rules of how a bartender should behave. He does not serve walk-ins, only regulars, and even then with only barely reined-in contempt and fury. He’s racist, sexist, vulgar and awful as a human being- and a joy to watch. The sheer exasperation with which Cox imbues the irritated glares he throws a cassette recorder playing a self-help relaxation recording would be beyond a lesser actor. Unfortunately, Jacques is also on his fifth heart attack, and after meeting Lucas (played by the human incarnation of buttermilk, Paul Dano) in a hospital, decides to strong-arm the boy into becoming his apprentice and protector of the values of bar life. While Dano’s performance can only pale next to Cox’s incendiary rants, he actually holds his own, managing to display Lucas as almost pathologically generous and kindhearted with a minimum of saintliness.

But Kari focuses nearly as much on the bar patrons as he does on the ostensible protagonists. The film moves at a halting pace, as it frequently pauses to allow its crew of ne’er do wells (a woman-hungry florist, a garbage man/aspiring astronaut, a gigolo and one man at the end of the bar who never says a thing) screen time. And thankfully so; the conversations and confrontations of these ragged folk are some of the best parts of the film. It does also lend itself to a certain lack of dramatic tension, hence the intrusion of a young woman who manages to force her way through a combination of hard luck and French-ness into all their lives, much to Jacques’ displeasure. She’s unfortunately more of a plot device than a character, but Isild Le Besco plays her charmingly, and hey, none of the characters seem to have discernible pasts anyway. They’re less people than manifestations of the shabby bar itself.

The Good Heart’s ending seems to come out of nowhere, but then ultimately seems inevitable. It’s sad to see a bastard loosen up, but it’s also gratifying. Lucas becomes a man, the patrons get their drinks and even the asshole behind the bar learns to lighten up a little. It does us all a little good to see that.

by Nathan Kamal
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