Paul Bettany
Stars: Anthony Mackie, Jennifer Connelly
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

The appearance this year of two films — “Heaven Knows What” and “Time out of Mind” — that redefine how homelessness is portrayed in movies makes Paul Bettany’s more traditional “Shelter” look worse than it is. “Heaven” buried its one semi-recognizable face (Caleb Landry Jones) amongst a crowd of actual young drug addicts; “Time” hid a decidedly, amazingly non-grandstanding Richard Gere in “Where’s Waldo?” images. 

“Shelter,” meanwhile, directed by actor Paul Bettany, puts its two stars, Anthony Mackie and Bettany’s wife Jennifer Connelly, right up front, allowing them to show off some real actor moves. Where “Heaven” and “Time” didn’t underline or even seem concerned with offering a message, “Shelter” has junkie Hannah hold up a sign that reads “I USED TO BE SOMEONE.” It’s a movie about those everyone ignores on the streets, who have not only pasts but are also people too, and it will put these intentions in all caps.

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The truth about “Shelter” is a bit more complicated, though. It’s a mixed bag that gets some things right and is refreshing about others. It also fumbles about at times and feeds on old cliches that need to die. An understated Anthony Mackie plays Tahir, an African emigre in New York City, who winds up paired with an overacting Connelly, whose Hannah is a bulging eyed junkie who looks suspiciously like an actress trying to dress down. Both have secrets that will be revealed at shocking instances. Their experiences on the street turn horrific — arguably worse than anything that befell Connelly in “Requiem for a Dream.” 

But things aren’t all bad, and their lives are more hill and dale. It can go too far into niceness, as in a stretch where Tahir and Hannah improbably shack up for weeks in a swanky LES house while its owners are on vacation. (Hannah spends most of that going through withdrawal, which does considerably temper any “Home Alone” vibes.) Ditto a scene of full-on magical realism, where a fall into a puddle becomes a swim in an ocean. There’s too many “poetic” shots against sensitive heavy guitar indie rock. But there’s also moments of calm, and our heroes are allowed to get better. One benefit of Hannah finding her way out of addiction is that Connelly gets to go from an actor trying way too hard to be real and segue into her superior acting mode: relaxed, loose, even flirty, treating lines to playful sing-song readings. 

But “Shelter” isn’t the kind of movie where its heroes getting better doesn’t mean they won’t be soon hit by a tidal wave of pure crap. Bettany has some grim business lying in wait for them — and then some more, and then some more, and then some more. Bettany means well, and you can’t even fault him for focusing on educated people who’ve fallen on hard times (even those who clean up real nice and discuss theology). But even without “Heaven Knows What” and “Time Out of Mind” looming tall over it, “Shelter” can’t hide its ersatz form of realism, where nearly every bad thing that could happen does. It’s almost worse that for a brief spell “Shelter” resembles a Dardennes brothers film, with Hannah tensely shuffled from one bureaucratic office to the next, struggling to keep her cool while dealing with the impossible. It’s both better than it lets on and still stuck in the old, bad ways.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge