Lone Scherfig’s everything-is-connected ensemble film never comes together
THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS (Lone Scherfig). 112 minutes. Opens Friday (December 6). See listing. Rating: NN
Lone Scherfig’s The Kindness Of Strangers is a bad movie, but it’s nobody’s fault. You can feel that people believed in it at one point or another in the process it just didn’t come together. I could say a lot of other stuff, but that’s the gist of it. The notes don’t play.
It’s a shame to see Scherfig, whose credits include the art-house hits Italian For Beginners, Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself, An Education and Their Finest, fall into the twinkly everything-is-connected mode that feels so worn out a decade and a half after Paul Haggis’s divisive Crash. It feels like she wanted to say something about America’s growing class divides, but it didn’t make the final cut. A lot of stuff didn’t make the final cut, I’m guessing.
It’s an ensemble drama about the intersecting lives of half a dozen characters over the course of a New York winter. Our focal points are Clara (Zoe Kazan), a young mother who’s fled with her kids (Jack Fulton, Finlay Wojtak-Hissong) from an abusive husband in Buffalo Marc (Tahar Rahim), an ex-con trying to readjust to life after four years in prison and Alice (Andrea Riseborough) a nurse, therapist and shelter worker.
Also around are Marc’s lawyer John Peter (Jay Baruchel), Timofey (Bill Nighy), who runs the Russian restaurant where Marc finds work, and Jeff (Caleb Landry Jones), a hapless idiot whose struggles to hold down a job and not die of exposure are literally laughable, and perhaps not intentionally so.
This is the first sign that Scherfig might not have the firmest handle on her picture: a movie can get away with characters making one or two bad decisions out of panic or limited resources – as Clara does for most of the film’s first hour, come to think of it – but where Kazan does everything she can to make her character’s desperation feel raw and real, Landry Jones comes off as too dumb to feed himself, and his antics wind up destabilizing his every scene.
It’s also a bit of a problem that most of Alice’s scenes seem to have been shaved down to the bone, wasting Riseborough’s presence, and that Marc’s are undercut by Rahim’s struggle to deliver the English-language dialogue. Baruchel gets a couple of good line readings in, and Nighy’s always fun naturally, they’re given the least screen time so Scherfig can really focus on everyone else’s suffering.
The film gets points for knitting together locations in Toronto, Manhattan and Copenhagen to create a well-realized New York City, and we can enjoy a few local faces here and there, including Pat Thornton, Daniel Kash and a scene-stealing Lisa Codrington as a cranky member of Alice’s therapy group. Well, “enjoy” is probably overselling it in a project this insistently mopey, but it’s nice to see them just the same.