Famous actors playing homeless people is always a tough sell. No matter how committed they may be to the role, it’s hard to suspend disbelief; the disparity between the character’s poverty and the celebrity’s obscene wealth is so pronounced that it continually gets in the way. Richard Gere did an impressive job of inhabiting a lost soul earlier this year in Time Out Of Mind, but his performance still felt vaguely like a stunt, because he looked like Richard Gere, rather than like any actual 65-year-old homeless man you’ve ever seen on the street. Even less convincing is Shelter, the first feature written and directed by Paul Bettany. Dedicated to a homeless couple who camped outside the New York apartment building where Bettany lives with his wife, Jennifer Connelly, the film stars Connelly and Anthony Mackie as the two most model-gorgeous vagrants in New York City, and hopes that viewers will focus on the holes in the jacket Connelly wears rather than on her perfect complexion and teeth. A compelling story might have succeeded in overcoming those cosmetic distractions, but Bettany only offers an overwrought romance.
After being released from jail—but not deported, because he’s been designated a low priority—Nigerian immigrant Tahir (Mackie) returns to his favorite alley to find that all of his meager belongings have been stolen. When he spots a homeless woman, Hannah (Connelly), with his jacket tied around her waist, he proceeds, for reasons that only make sense as part of a screenplay, to follow her around from a distance for a while, only confronting her when she tries to commit suicide by jumping from a bridge. The two quickly become friends, then lovers, holing up together in a vacant townhouse and trading backstories: Tahir’s wife and child were killed by Nigerian militants (leading Tahir to briefly join Boko Haram and murder innocent people himself), while Hannah became a junkie and abandoned her young son after her husband, who joined the reserves following 9/11, died in an unspecified terrorist attack overseas. Because that’s why people are homeless in America: Something unspeakably tragic happened to them, generally involving loved ones being murdered. Nothing to do with systemic income inequality or anything.
As a director, Bettany is predictably good with actors, though he indulges some over-the-top shouting and wailing from Connelly. He’s also prone, as first-timers often are, to unnecessary stylistic flourishes: lots of pseudo-arty dissolves, and multiple interludes in which the dialogue is deliberately out of sync with the image. It’s Bettany’s script, though, that’s the main problem here. In his earnest effort to depict how tough life is for the downtrodden, he dogpiles his two protagonists with manufactured misery, even resorting to a cruel fakeout at one point: Hannah, freezing in a snowstorm with nowhere to go (while Tahir lies in a hospital bed, because one crisis is never enough), gets invited to sleep in a building’s boiler room by a security guard (Kevin Geer) who radiates sincere compassion… and then casually insists that she repay his generosity by letting him ejaculate on her face. She’ll later resort to prostitution in order to pay for Tahir’s medicine, but Bettany’s decision to show Hannah in that degraded state suggests that he’s more interested in shock value than in genuinely investigating what it’s like to have nothing. The neorealists figured out the first principle to the latter effort a long time ago: Don’t cast millionaires.