A city can be a playground, a wasteland, a dream factory; a place to conquer, or be devoured by, or just about anything beyond or in between. Lone Scherfig probably intended to reach for some of these notes in the sad-sack New York fable The Kindness of Strangers, the first film she has written solo since 2000’s Italian for Beginners. But the film never musters the energy or clarity to get to any of them. This is a flat and visionless ensemble drama, reaching to put its arms around the world and closing on air.
As the music swirls and the choppy narrative introduces us to disparate characters strewn around the wonderland, it seems we’re in for one of those loosely interlocking multi-stranded epics of personal struggle that came in the wake of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, such as Paul Haggis’ Crash and Fernando Meirelles’ 360.
Zoe Kazan plays a Buffalo housewife who flees her abusive cop husband, telling her two young boys they’re going on an adventure to discover Manhattan, which mainly consists of sleeping in their car, foraging for food or wandering the public library; Tahar Rahim is an ex-con who falls into becoming a restaurant manager for Bill Nighy, a proprietor who switches between Russian and American accents depending on whether he’s performing for his clientele; Jay Baruchel is Rahim’s friend and lawyer, who mostly stands around looking bemused; Caleb Landry Jones plays a mentally challenged trier whose mishaps have gotten him fired from a mattress factory and a laundry; and Andrea Riseborough is a modern saint who divides her time between being an ER nurse, a support group leader and a volunteer at a church.
Rather than follow the personal dramas intensely while hinting that they’ll connect, the film lets all these characters meet and seems to settle its rhythm into plodding aimlessness as they do. Somehow – perhaps for no other reason than gravitational, vibrational attraction – they all end up drifting in and out of the church, the Russian restaurant and the support group. Jones is less useless at everything once Riseborough gives him handyman chores to do; maybe all he needed was someone to believe in him.
Kazan keeps leaving her kids to go missing while she forages for food, or avoids her husband, who keeps finding her and slinking into scenes as coolly dead-eyed as Robert Patrick was when he played the T-1000. Riseborough’s accent seems to become more Bronx the more tired she gets, and this is as close as we get to personal flavour. The characters don’t have personalities so much as situations, and within that, the film’s default mode is to show people sitting around looking pensive.
Shifting around indigently can make for powerful cinema, whether it’s La Strada, The Saint of Fort Washington or Midnight Cowboy. Even Home Alone 2 is far more indelible than The Kindness of Strangers. Scherfig’s eye is too bland and functional to imbue her wandering script with the reach-out-and-touch-somebody ethereal magic that she was presumably going for. The most interesting things that happen to the characters – Kazan fighting a court case against her abusive husband, Rahim refurbishing the restaurant, Riseborough falling in love – occur either offscreen, in montage, or are referred to in offhand, mumbled dialogue.
Any of those avenues might have been a more worthwhile way for The Kindness of Strangers to spend its 115-minute running time. Last year’s Berlin Film Festival opener was Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, which, like it or not, was a burst of energy. This is some comedown.