Danish director Lone Scherfig throws half a dozen Manhattan lives together, using infamously callous New Yorkers to try and make a point about “The Kindness of Strangers.”
It doesn’t wholly come off, with back stories too thinly developed, pathos and cruelty blending with the whimsy of a New York con. But she filmed “An Education,” “Italian for Beginners,” and “Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself.” So even if we’re doing some of the work for her, she can be relied on to make certain we get more than a little something out of the trip.
Andrea Riseborough plays an ER nurse who has let her job get to her. Nurse Alice hasn’t gone down the “Nurse Jackie” route. She’s not doing drugs. But she’s filling her days and nights with extra work at a soup kitchen or running a self-help group called “Forgiveness.”
It’s just the ER that makes her weep and slip out back to throw up.
Zoe Kazan is Clara, a young mother of two boys (Jack Fulton and Finlay Wojtak-Hissong) who stuffs them into their old station wagon and flees to the city “for a vacation.” She’s in a troubled marriage but struggling to put a smiling face on this trip — broke, just a few clothes, a car and the most expensive city in North America in winter.
“Are we homeless? ” the oldest wants to know. “No more homeless than anybody else here.” As Mom says this in a soup kitchen, well.
Caleb Landry Jones is hapless Jeff, a “slow” and clumsy young man who cannot keep focus or keep even the most menial job.
“Firing me is all you can ‘do for’ me?”
And Jay Baruchel and Tahar Rahim play a sensitive attorney and a client who has just gotten out of jail. John Peter (Baruchel) drags Marc (Rahim) to “Forgiveness” meetings, each expecting the other to get something out of the “learn to forgive yourself” (a little hazy) ethos of Alice and the group.
In this little corner of Manhattan, pretty much everybody stumbles across the proud old Russian tea-room/restaurant where Timofey (Bill Nighy) presides. It’s an ineptly-run place that doesn’t measure up to the Czarist decor and Timfey’s mild-mannered if sketchy accent.
Marc, it turns out, has restaurant running experience. “Tim” can drop the “fey” and the phony accent. Marc can save the place.
Scherfig’s inter-related stories fold in on each other through the restaurant, the soup kitchen, the ER and the streets. Needless to say, it is Clara’s plight that drives “The Kindness of Strangers.”
Their dilemma is compounded by the home life they’re fleeing. The abusive husband/father (Esben Smed) is a cop. If they get identified in a shelter or hospital, if they get parking tickets, he will be able to track them.
Kazan, of “The Big Sick,” “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” and “Ruby Sparks,” plays a tour-guide to DIY out-of-towner survival in the big city. Yes, she cadges drinks and leftovers from a wedding at the Russian eatery. She wanders the halls of a hotel picking up room service leftover trays as well. They duck into libraries, Grand Center Station and churches to get warm.
“What do other people do?” her oldest asks. “Where do they go?”
“Other people have folks. We don’t.”
Most desk clerks, shelter admissions officers and hotel security folks are New York stereotypes — won’t get involved. But ducking into the church where Alice’s group meets changes their fate.
The little slices of street life, restaurant trickery and ER grind are familiar. The story takes the occasional melodramatic turn for the worse.
But Jones makes an affable, perhaps “on the spectrum” goof — good-hearted, with a temper. Baruchel does the hangdog thing well, and Nighy is the most effortlessly charming presence in any movie he turns up in.
Zazan is marvelous at playing desperation that Clara most desperately wants to hide. And Riseborough, most recently seen in “The Grudge” but famous for “Birdman” and “Battle of the Sexes,” makes Alice the hollowed-out rock here, a broken soul whose deep wound we can only guess at, but who wears her humanity on her care-worn face.
“Why can’t you just be kind?” she pleads, at one point. Some hear her, others turn a deaf ear.
This isn’t on a par with Scherfig’s best films, but the milieu and situations are immersive and the characters just colorful enough to hold our interest.
If you’re a non-New Yorker like myself, maybe it’ll remind you of your first trips to the city and how lucky you felt if you got through the visit without depending on “The Kindness of Strangers.” It’s always in short supply there.
MPAA Rating: unrated, one scene of violence
Cast: Zoe Kazan, Andrea Riseborough, Caleb Landry Jones, Tahar Rahim , Jay Baruchel and Bill Nighy
Written and directed by Lone Scherfig. A Vertical release.
Running time: 1:52