It’s tempting — entirely TOO tempting — to write off “Shelter” as another exercise in an actress dressing down and uglying up. Beautiful women of the movies like to take a walk on the unkempt and homeless side, often just to prove that they can. Meryl Streep in “Ironweed,” Charlize Theron’s Oscar-winning turn in “Monster,” just two examples that come to mind.
And Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly is as stunning as ever, even in the gaunt, heroin-addicted New York street person guise of Hannah in this film, written and directed by her husband, Paul Bettany.
But you have to look for it. A little, anyway. The model’s cheekbones are there, and when she trots out a dollop of French, or explains “cognitive dissonance” to the Nigerian illegal migrant (Anthony Mackie) who becomes her protector and lover, there’s a hint of the better life such beauty afforded her.
Her panhandling sign, “I used to be someone” says it all.
Hannah is truly addicted and absolutely messed up, pulling down her pants to shoot up, hanging out on bridges, screwing up the courage it would take to commit suicide.
Tahir follows her, saves her, questions her and tries to understand her.
He is Muslim, and one arrest away from being deported. He visits an Imam who can keep him going a little longer, with a handout of clothes or shoes. He still prays.
But when he is with Hannah, he slips. Such as when they break into a posh brownstone to get a few nights’ relief from the weather.
“I am not the first Muslim to drink,” he confesses.
He, too, has a past.
“Islam is a beautiful flower,” he admits. “But sometimes, it needs thorns.”
Tahir did terrible things. Hannah did terrible things, and still does. She preys on Muslim street vendors, stealing their wares, when they leave their parkside stalls to pray together. She owes a drug dealer money.
Bettany has conjured up a nice slice of New York street life, capturing how hard it is to be this poor, how every little blip in your routine, the weather or your health can be that day’s disaster.
Like his wife, he’s known for introspective, brooding and soulful performances, and Connelly manages that, here and there.
Anthony Mackie’s fall of 2015 is allowing him to give full voice to his range; a serious, haunted turn with an African accent here, a deadpan overgroomed cop in “Love the Coopers,” and a touch of the comic gonzo in “The Night Before.”
But as it meanders from over-familiar set-pieces and cliches — Tahir drums on empty paint buckets for money, predators face them at every turn, a callous system trips them up, and when they break into that brownstone, naturally they play dress-up — “Shelter” loses its way.
You can’t wholly write it off. But as the slight surprises if offers dry up, it flirts with becoming a trite exercise acted out by dilettantes. Which is the last thing they wanted it to be.
Cast: Anthony Mackie, Jennifer Connelly
Credits: Written and directed by Paul Bettany. A
Screen Media release.
Running time: 1:45