Despite its feel-good title, “The Kindness of Strangers” is a rather bleak movie, one so tied to the miseries of its characters that it’s difficult to see the point of it at all.
Perhaps there is no point other than to get a number of famous actors to occasionally cross paths in a dreary New York City in the winter. The movie functions like one of those star-studded Garry Marshall ensemble movies (“Valentine’s Day” or “New Year’s Eve”) but made terribly sad until the last few minutes, when a tacked-on happy ending arrives in time for the credits.
Written and directed by Lone Scherfig, “The Kindness of Strangers” begins with the story of Clara (Zoe Kazan) and her two young boys fleeing an abusive marriage. Most of her time on screen will be spent scavenging for supplies and figuring out how to keep living in the big city with no income or other family to lean on. Things eventually get so dire, Clara’s reduced to the quite literal kindness of strangers to save her and her kids.
In another part of town, Alice (Andrea Riseborough) is working yet another long, thankless shift as an ER nurse who also administers a therapy group and runs a church soup kitchen. Her biggest defining characteristic is that she’s always running late to one of her many jobs and that she often dines alone. Other characters will speak of her singleness with a hint of pity. She’s a sexless saint who gives strangers her all for little in return.
Desperate restaurant owner Timofey (Bill Nighy) adopts a wavering Russian accent to better suit the needs of his regular diners, but clearly needs the managerial help of Marc (Tahar Rahim) to help keep his doors open. Marc remains friends with the lawyer who got him out of jail, John Peter (Jay Baruchel), who is always referred to by his full name, and the two attend Alice’s therapy group together. Originally a loner who has trouble connecting with people and keeping a job, Jeff (Caleb Landry Jones), is yet another poor New Yorker who will need help from strangers.
It’s a shame that this much plot and these many characters never coalesces into something more substantial. Scherfig’s previous works include “Their Finest,” a bittersweet WWII period piece about a woman finding her way into film production for the war effort, and “An Education,” about a teenager seduced by a charming older man. However, both of these movies were adaptations of other works, and the biggest fatal flaw of “The Kindness of Strangers” is its writing. Events are so conveniently placed, they’re predictable. One of Clara’s kids will inevitably get lost, sleep-deprived Alice will be driven to the breaking point in almost every other scene.
The only variable in each situation is how low will each character be laid. The last 20 or so minutes tries desperately to resolve everyone’s problems in a neat and orderly fashion, which feels like a reversal of all the wallowing that went on before. Then there are scenes so obvious, they’re almost comical, like a shot of Clara’s abusive husband caught mid-crime, how one of her boys’ computer obsession pays off in the end, or when Jeff awkwardly propositions Alice so she could have some overdue sex.
Many of the characters rely on the kindness of strangers, and a few of them even have the chance to pay it forward. Must the audience be brought so low to learn such a virtue? “The Kindness of Strangers” may have the best intentions, but audiences might not buy the hollow, uplifting ending for any other reason than they’ll be glad the movie’s over.
The film’s depressing tone extends even to Sebastian Blenkov’s (“Miss Sloane”) cinematography, which conjures an image of New York City that’s mercilessly dismal. Sure, the winters might be grey here, but even the sun comes out once in a while, and that’s more kindness and warmth than this movie gives its characters.