A critic often tries to achieve some balance in a review, so here’s a plus for The Kindness of Strangers. The nicest thing one can say about The Kindness of Strangers is that it will quickly be forgotten. The inevitable indifference with which this Christmas turkey will be received should be a blessing to everyone involved.
The Kindness of Strangers is shockingly bad for a film with so much talent. Written and directed by Lone Scherfig (An Education), the film features an impressive cast. Note the new lows for Zoe Kazan, Jay Baruchel, Andrea Riseborough, Bill Nighy, Tahar Rahim, and Caleb Landry Jones. The film has all the right players and none of the right moves. It’s a massive co-production, too, with Denmark, Canada, Sweden, France, Germany, the UK, and the USA putting money into it. (But, notably, nobody had enough confidence in the project to go all in.) Even the Berlin Film Festival opened with it, proving TIFF isn’t alone in kicking things off with a dud.
Scherfig’s film obviously has its heart in the right place. But just because Blanche DuBois says she believes in the kindness of strangers doesn’t make it so. Tennessee Williams must be rolling in his grave with the Hallmark card nonsense his Southern belle inspired.
The main problem with the movie is that nobody in it resembles a human being. Even when she’s a narcissistic hellion, Blanche DuBois feels as real as life itself. Alternatively, Clara (Zoe Kazan) leaves her husband and roughs it on the streets of New York with her two kids. Clara shoplifts designer clothes and purses, although how this aims to help the family remains unclear. She sneaks bite-sized hors d’oeuvres from swanky events to feed them. Yet she evades all rational lines of help because she can’t tip off the police since her husband’s a cop. It’s bizarre that she resorts to petty criminality when this is the case. Clara has every ingredient to inspire empathy, but even the usually reliable Kazan seems hopelessly lost here.
Cue Marc (Tahar Rahim), an ex-con working at a posh Russian restaurant. He risks his new job and his freedom on Clara-in-distress because that’s what nice guys do. So cute! So quaint! How nice to see the kids upgrade from canapés to caviar so that they don’t have to eat from dumpsters. Or, heaven forbid, a soup kitchen.
But then there’s Andrea Riseborough as Alice. Even she can’t save this movie—and her award-worthy performance as Wallis Simpson in Madonna’s spectacularly bad W.E. nearly merited the film a “thumbs up”. Alice is a mopey ER nurse who volunteers in soup kitchens and runs a bizarre forgiveness therapy group. A peanut gallery of misfits, including Marc and his lawyer John Peter (Jay Baruchel), unburden their baggage with Alice. How charitable of her, although she seems so awkwardly ill at ease with the people she helps. Riseborough looks as if she’s holding back vomit in every scene. Perhaps she saw the dailies.
Then Alice’s one solace from her vow of poverty and misery is indulging in caviar at the Russian restaurant. The fine dining establishment even lets her eat while wearing her scrubs. Because that’s what nice people in posh establishments do. And the guy who runs the restaurant is a vaguely sketchy literary guy/maybe gangster named Timofey (Bill Nighy). Alice even helps a homeless guy (Caleb Landry Jones) to bring things full circle.
The Kindness of Strangers is one of those multi-narrative ensemble pieces that became trendy around 2005. People cross paths through random encounters. Lives intertwine in one of those “we are all connected” tapestries. Characters help each other out because the film wants to remind audiences that humans are innately good. People cry, people suffer, people laugh, and then Scherfig offers a collective group hug. It might seem well timed for the holidays, but this hooey is the cinematic equivalent of “The Christmas Shoes.” The Kindness of Strangers is pedestrian feel-good bullshit.
The Kindness of Strangers opens Dec. 6.