Home Alone brought us the comic holiday tale of the “Wet Bandits” (rejigged as the “Sticky Bandits” in the second installment), a duo of inept, small-time crooks who can’t seem to get the better of young Kevin McCallister. Phil Morrison’s Almost Christmas — which made its world premiere this past Thursday night at the Tribeca Film Festival — keeps with the theme of Christmas-exploiting con men, but not in the same feel-good way one would expect; at times, the flick can be downright glum, like a child waking to a stocking full of coal.

Dennis (Paul Giamatti), a French Canadian fresh off a four-year stint for a low-level con job, is ready to go straight for the first time in his life. He treks from prison to the only home he has left (or so he thinks), encountering a wholly unwelcome surprise upon his return: His ex-wife Therese (Amy Landecker) has begun an affair with Rene (Paul Rudd), a slightly dull-witted, congenial fellow and Dennis’ former partner-in-crime, now a steadfast ex-con set on marrying his new love interest; worse yet, his daughter thinks him dead of cancer (Therese, who perpetuated this lie to explain Dennis’ absence, conciliatorily assures that he “suffered” greatly.) Harboring intense resentment for his old friend, but needing money and wanting to prove he has the capacity to do honest work, Dennis begrudgingly takes up with Rene for a fail-proof, get-rich-quick venture — hauling Christmas trees from Canada to New York City and hawking them for huge profits in the month-long lead-up to the holiday.

Except the plan isn’t quite as flawless as the duo would like, arriving to find their lot littered with trash, a rival, more polished operation directly across the street, and an underwhelming number of customers — not to mention flaring tensions between two business partners competing for the affection of the same woman. As the film rushes to its bittersweet finale, Rene’s charismatic shell peels back to expose an insecure, at times unstable individual, leaving Dennis to take ownership of the nose-diving operation — and at the same time exposing this hardened, misanthropic criminal as a hardworking, caring doer-well with a heart equally as thick as his mountain-man beard. (At a Q&A after the movie premiere, Giamatti joked about his bearded bramble, saying, “I put all of my effort and mental stamina into growing that beard. I have more hair on my face than any human should ever have.”) Ultimately, Morrison’s sophomore effort — his first feature film being the critically acclaimed Junebug (2005) — is a comic achievement, with laugh-out-loud slapstick seamlessly meshing with witty one-liners, but principally fails to deliver a convincing end to this story of friendship and redemption, leaving a slightly sour taste in the mouth not unlike that of Santa’s undrunk milk.

Co-stars Giamatti and Rudd breathe life into the screenplay — written by Melissa James Gibson, a Brooklyn native — with their penchant for humor, and as able-bodied dramatists they are able to bring the narrative back down to earth in convincing fashion when it takes a turn toward the somber. As the grizzled unsung hero, Giamatti is particularly inspiring, skillfully executing the disposition of a man who’s continually dealt a poor hand but does what he needs to scrape by, and winning us over in the process. Rudd’s seemingly easy-going personality is a perfect fit for the role of the goofy, likable Rene, whose mouth runs a mile a minute, a stark contrast to Dennis’ silent brooding. (“These are more than Christmas trees. These are memories. Come smell some memories,” is one of his sales pitches — albeit, not an overly successful one.) Olga (Sally Hawkins), an Eastern European house sitter for rich periodontists who ends up befriending Dennis, is probably the kookiest addition to the mismatched motley crew, whose helping hand and thickly accented, amusing interjections (“You have heart like Putin,” she tells Dennis) uplift the spirits.

“I’ve always been very fascinated by the weird and wonderful occupation of Christmas tree salespeople,” Gibson said of her motivation for writing the script, in the post-movie Q&A. “It’s so specific to New York.” Although Gibson undoubtedly succeeds in transmitting the weird, she depicts the travail of urban tree vendors as anything but wonderful. For all the laughs, there’s double the melancholy; neither a sharp knock to the funny bone, thanks to smart dialogue and rock-solid front men, nor buoyant holiday spirits will help the movie avoid the appropriate label of “downer.” If it is light-hearted criminal high-jinks you’re looking for come Christmas time, stick with the Wet Bandits.

Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars

“Almost Christmas” opened to the public on Thursday, April 18. Additional screenings are to take place on Sunday, April 21 at the SVA Theatre in NYC (located at 333 West 23rd Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues) and Wednesday April 24 at the AMC Loews Village 7 Theatre (located at 66 3rd Avenue, at 11th Street). For time and ticket information, please visit http://tribecafilm.com/festival.

Featured image: Rene (Paul Rudd) and Denis (Paul Giamatti) stand at their Christmas tree lot in feature film “Almost Christmas.” Both are bundled up in winter attire. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise.

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