Most of Dagur Kari's first English-language feature takes place in a New York City bar, a dim, dingy hole-in-the-wall with a half-dozen regulars and a strict "no walk-ins" policy that ensures their little space will remain unsullied by the outside world. The Icelandic writer-director has said his affinity for sitcoms is a primary influence on the film, and indeed, The Good Heart's bar is not unlike Cheers -- if despair merchant Charles Bukowski had served as executive producer.
Instead of the likeably dimwitted ladies' man Sam Malone behind the bar, we get Jacques (Brian Cox), an ill-tempered grump who values hostility and arrogance above all other virtues. Meanwhile, the working stiffs and middle-aged intellectual failures who warm the bar stools are versions of Norm, Cliff and Frasier, reflected through a glass very, very darkly.
Jacques' irascibility and heavy smoking make him a cardiologist's worst nightmare, and early in the film he suffers his fifth heart attack -- ironically, just after listening to a relaxation tape, one of the film's frequent stabs at deadpan humor. In the hospital, he's assigned to a room with Lucas (Paul Dano), a homeless young social misfit who's just botched his suicide. Feeling the weight of his own mortality, Jacques takes Lucas in as his protege and heir, and sets out to teach him all he knows about bartending, abusing customers and making the perfect cup of coffee.
Kari's vision of New York is fascinating in its presentation of a particular bygone stereotype of the city. Apart from the presence of cell phones, this might have been a late '70s or early '80s period piece: Patrons smoke in the bar, the streets seem filled with rusty old clunkers, and every surface and character seems coated in a film of filth, from the smeared windows diffusing the cold light to the grimy desperation of the lives on display. Rasmus Videbaek's cinematography drains this lonely corner of the city of nearly any color that isn't a pale blue-gray or brown, and the grit even extends to the film stock itself: The images are textured with a heavy grain in the darkened interiors. All of which earns the film style points that are not matched by the story.
It's Kari's commitment to putting a dark spin on formulaic American television that is his undoing. Jacques and Lucas are the oddest of couples, but their cross-pollination plays out in predictable ways, with Lucas' presence challenging how Jacques runs both his business and his life. When Lucas shacks up with a young woman -- in another incidence of studied, offbeat irony, she's a weepy French stewardess just fired from her job owing to a fear of flying -- the shock is too much for the old misanthrope, who flies off the handle, spewing misogynistic slurs and putting too much stress on that badly strained heart. Here, the fixed path of Kari's plot, with its forced sentimentalities, calculated emotional breakthroughs and bittersweet redemptions, becomes all too clear.
The movie's two bright spots are Cox and Dano, who perform excellently despite the dull inevitabilities the script forces on them. Jacques' hard-nosed attitude is no stretch for Cox, but he balances the outbursts with a world-weary aspect. And as the taciturn Lucas, Dano delivers an introverted physical performance that defines the character with every stilted step and unsure gesture. They're big-screen performances in a film that never moves past its small-screen ambitions.