There was a time, just over a decade ago, when, in the wake of Paul Haggis’s Crash winning the Oscar for Best Picture, a whole slew of ensemble dramas about disparate people and their troubled paths intersecting were unleashed upon the world. Most of these films were terrible and instantly forgettable (The Air I Breathe, anyone? Fragments? Powder Blue? American Gun?), banking on an array of recognizable names and a gravely self-important thematic issue to cover up the flimsy script contrivances and hollow emotional triggers. After the lukewarm-to-abysmal critical and commercial reaction to these films seemed to kill them for good by the early 2010s, acclaimed Danish director Lone Scherfig decides to come extremely late to the party.
So here we have The Kindness of Strangers, a film where what you see is what you get, beginning with the pseudo-poetic but ultimately banal title. A better film may have tried to enact some sort of ironic twist on that moniker through its narrative but no, this film really is just about strangers being kind to one another. That’s it. So strap yourself in to feel warm and fuzzy, I guess.
The setting is winter in New York City as we are introduced to a handful of lost souls (you know the drill). Clara (Zoe Kazan) is a single mother who has fled with her two young sons from an abusive policeman husband, trying to figure out her next steps with no money or connections. Marc (Tahar Rahim), a restaurateur, has just been released from prison after serving time for his brother’s criminal misdeeds. Marc’s lawyer, John Peter (Jay Baruchel), attends a forgiveness support group in order to try and feel better about not always being able to do the right thing in the courtroom. Alice (Andrea Riseborough), the leader of the support group and a nurse at a nearby hospital, is forever alone, unable to navigate new relationships after witnessing the constant disappointments of others. Jeff (Caleb Landry Jones), an inept but spirited young man, is a natural born failure at every job he gets, leading him to get evicted from his apartment for not being able to make rent. And then there’s Timofey (Bill Nighy), a forlorn but kindly Russian ex-pat who runs a decaying restaurant and just might be looking for someone new to run it. Alright, you got all that?
The way all of these characters’ lives come together is totally ridiculous and extremely obvious from the start, making the movie a long wait for events that we all know are going to happen. The restaurant becomes the central hub of the film, where all the characters take refuge at various points, eventually resulting in an awkwardly scripted group dinner that doesn’t really make much sense but I think is supposed to be cathartic.
It’s hard to say exactly what Scherfig was going for with all of this. At first, it seems to try for a nuanced portrayal of urban homelessness, except there isn’t really any diverse or believable representation in that regard. The domestic violence angle awkwardly pivots into a histrionic corrupt-cop/legal thriller narrative that feels like it’s been shoehorned in to create some cheap suspense. At the same time, the wintry backdrops and saccharine love connections seem to indicate that maybe she was trying to capture some of that Love Actually magic.
In the end, it doesn’t work as anything. Scherfig is a filmmaker who often paints in broad emotional strokes, but the level of scripted sentimentality here (made more grating by Andrew Lockington’s treacly musical score) suffocates any potential feeling that could have naturally arisen. The actors try their best with the material but are largely hung out to dry, no one more so than Landry Jones, who makes Jeff so out to lunch that I actually think he was supposed to be developmentally disabled in some way. Or maybe that’s just Landry Jones refusing to dial down his weirdo schtick. Hard to tell, really.
Since most of the film was shot in Toronto (it’s a Canada-Denmark coproduction), it doesn’t even hold water as an authentic New York tale. Instead, the weird dislocation pretty much sums up the whole vibe of The Kindness of Strangers – it’s out-of-place, out-of-time and completely out-of-touch.