Early in The Good Heart, morose homeless man Paul Dano is pulled back from the brink of death by doctors and nurses at a New York hospital, who are so moved by his gratitude that they take up a collection to help him get back on his feet. But as soon as Dano leaves the hospital, he runs into some of his fellow street people, and gives all the hospital’s money away. Meanwhile, his hospital roommate Brian Cox, the owner of a nearby shithole bar, finds out from his doctor that he’s eligible for a heart transplant, but only if he promises to quit smoking, drinking, and yelling at everybody. Both situations pose the same question: Is a gift really a gift if it comes with conditions?
That’s a powerful theme, and writer-director Dagur Kári develops it further by having Cox take Dano under his wing, offering to give him the bar if Dano follows the rules: no making friends with the clientele, no welcoming new customers, and no allowing women through the door. (Women have “cafeterias and patisseries” they can hang out in if they crave companionship, Cox insists.) But Kári sabotages that theme with The Good Heart’s uneasy mix of art-film burnish and sitcom familiarity. Cox’s bar is a home away from home for weirdoes and outcasts, like Cheers with a twist of Jim Jarmusch, and Kári relies too much on their eccentricity to drive the movie to its predictable finish.
It doesn’t help that he puts so much of the story’s burden on Dano, whose terrific performance in There Will Be Blood looks more like an aberration with each new movie he makes. It’d be hard for any actor to do much with such a purely reactive character, but Dano softens an already soft part until it turns to goo. Between Dano’s nothingness and the movie’s overall goofiness, The Good Heart’s contemplation of gifts and what they mean gets lost. Also lost? Another fine performance from Cox, who squirts ketchup into water when a yuppie customer asks for organic tomato juice, and bristles when Dano opens a bottle of champagne for reasons other than celebrating an athletic championship. Cox’s character is a living, hissing embodiment of the idea that no good deed goes unpunished. As an actor stuck in a movie that wastes his talents, Cox can surely relate.