Practical Wisdom from Holiday Movies

I have now watched 40 Christmas rom-coms, and I feel qualified to share with you some of the lessons I’m acquiring. There are some real life hacks in here which come too late for me – having been married lo these 32 years. But listen well, younger folks, and you may be able to put some of this to use. And since most of this advice is applicable the last few days before Christmas, it’s timely!

15 Things I Have Learned from Christmas Rom-Coms

1. Fake Christmas trees are for losers.

2. Everyone proposes marriage at Christmas time. Everyone gets married at Christmas time. But everyone also breaks up at Christmas time, so watch out for that.

3. The cuter the girl, the clumsier she is. I could illustrate this on a bar graph, but I think you get my point.

4. The most popular deadline for career making or breaking proposals, projects, presentations, and contracts is midnight on Christmas Eve.

5. It doesn’t matter how old you are, your mother is probably dead.

6. For the love of God, be careful with your precious, heirloom ornaments. At the rate they get broken, it’s a wonder anyone has any heirlooms at all!

7. If you are embarrassed about not having a boyfriend, hire one. Or kidnap one. This is a very good way to find your future husband.

8. If an adorable child gives you life advice, take it.

9. Be extra careful making magical wishes around the holidays. You don’t literally want to live in a miniature Christmas village.

10. If, on say, December 21 you have a great idea for a charity fundraiser, schedule it for Christmas Eve. No one has anything else going on that night, except for the person who has to finish that career making or breaking proposal, project, presentation, or contract. It will be a big success.

11. If you really love Christmas you will decorate every square inch of your house, inside and out. This is your life’s work now.

12. Never date a man who works in finance or real estate.

13. Never date a man who doesn’t like dogs.

14. Never date a man who your sassy grandma doesn’t like.

15. Santa is REAL, and he may be hot and single. Or he may be the hottie’s dad. Or he may be the twinkly-eyed old man you were rude to at the Christmas tree lot, in which case you’re about to be taught a lesson. In any case, he is definitely real.

Official Entry #36: Merry In-Law (2012)

Watched: December 10, 2019

Peter Claus proposes to his girlfriend just before the holidays. His very rational astronomer fiancee says yes but now – uh oh! – both sets of parents come to visit. Alex’s dad is determined to break up the romance, and Mr. and Mrs. Claus are not very good at concealing that they are Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus.

Our Romantic Couple: Alex (Kassia Warshawski) and Peter (Lucas Bryant)

Their Meet-Cute: No idea

Star Power Casting: Shelley Long and George Wendt as Mr. and Mrs. Claus

The 110% Award: I’m giving it to Shelley, who gives a positively giddy performance. In some contexts it would seem like too much, but it’s really the only thing this movie has going for it.

Observations: This is the third appearance by Shelley Long as a mom in this rom-com-athon, and the best of the three. There’s no sense in casting Shelley Long unless you’re going to let her do comedy. Here Mrs. Claus is no mere sidekick who fusses over Santa’s health. She’s got some magic herself, expressed through her cookies. They’re like a sanctified version of Narnia’s Turkish Delight. Once you eat one of her cookies, you’ll always want more. But beyond that, they serve as truth serum, mood lifter, and aphrodisiac. Alex’s mom, a very rational therapist, gets hooked and gets some therapy of her own from Mrs. Claus.

Lucas Bryant was the lead in the Syfy series, Haven. Watching these movies is a constant game of “Why do I know that guy?” I have never used IMDB more than in the last month.

This movie borrows a lot from Miracle on 34th Street. Alex has a child, Max, who has been taught not to believe in Santa. He will, of course, be the first to catch on that there’s something fishy about jolly “Mr. C”. But Alex is the one who really needs her faith restored, after being raised by her hyper rational parents and having her Christmas spirit killed when her childhood pleas for Santa to show himself went unanswered. It’s all very derivative hokum.

George Wendt gives a subdued performance, but it’s still nice to see Diane and Norm together.

Official Entry #37: Holiday in the Wild (2019)

Watched: December 11, 2019

Kate gave up her career as a vet to be married to Mr. Business and raise a child. Now her son is off to college, and Kate’s husband wants a divorce. What is she going to do about the “Second honeymoon” trip she’d already booked to Zambia? Of course, she goes on the trip anyway and it becomes a journey of self discovery. Kate falls for a pilot/elephant sanctuary director and rediscovers her veterinary roots before heading back to New York to practice veterinary medicine among the ladies who lunch. But of course, she must return to Zambia, to the elephants and her hunky pilot to live happily ever after.

Our Romantic Couple: Kate (Kristin Davis) and Derek (Rob Lowe)

Their Meet-Cute: He hits on her in a restaurant her first night in Zambia. She, freshly dumped by her husband, is not amused and leaves the restaurant without touching her huge plate of food. He eats her food.

Star Power Casting: All the wattage (and most of the casting budget, I’d guess) is invested in the lead couple.

The 110% Award: Haley Owen as the icy South African blonde who represents the foundation funding the elephant sanctuary. She’s so evil and petty that she’d rather decimate the elephant population than let Derek have another girlfriend.

Observations: You’d be surprised how often men appear shirtless in these Christmas movies. Rob Lowe’s pecs make an appearance early in Holiday in the Wild.

I didn’t buy Kate as a vet for a minute. Maybe it’s the celebrity crush I have on Dr. Oakley, Yukon Vet (I’ve watched every episode), but Kristin Davis seems far too fussy & cute & ditzy for the job.

OH AND HER HUSBAND! What a jerk! Here’s how this goes down, paraphrased.
Son heads for the elevator.
Kate: Goodbye, son! Enjoy college!
Husband: Goodbye, son! Learn business!
Kate: Our son is gone now. I booked us a trip to Zambia.
Husband: Our son is gone now. I don’t love you anymore. I want a divorce. Goodbye!
And scene.

I am a little sensitive about animals. I do not watch these movies expecting to see an orphaned baby elephant near the body of his mother who was killed for her tusks. Netflix should offer me trauma counseling.

Best Worst Lines: It’s a tie between this….
Derek: Some say the buffalo is the most dangerous animal out here, but they’re wrong. It’s us.
…and this…
Husband, after Kate’s trip to Zambia: Did you meet someone?
Kate: Yes. (long pause) I met me.

Kate’s first stay in Zambia falls across Christmas, so there IS a holiday in this movie, but it’s pretty downplayed. No gingerbread, no Santa, no gifts. Instead, you get Rob Lowe’s pecs.

Official Entry #38: His and Her Christmas (2005)

Watched December 14, 2019

Tom is a big shot politics and arts columnist for a big time San Francisco newspaper. Liz is a relationship advice columnist for a small time community newspaper. When the ownership of Tom’s paper buys and threatens to shutdown Liz’s paper, she goes on a crusade via column to, I don’t know, build readership, I guess? Show the paper’s viability? Tom retaliates with a column of his own. Sparks fly. They hate each other, then they fall in love and Tom manages to save Liz’s paper. The end.

Our Romantic Couple: Liz (Dina Meyer) and Tom (David Sutcliffe)

Their Meet Cute: They don’t have one. They barely meet at all, for that matter.

Star Power Casting: Well, I guess the best this movie offers is Meyer (who was the female lead in Johnny Mnemonic) and Sutcliffe (who played Lorelei’s boyfriend early in The Gilmore Girls).

The 110% Award: Kyle Cassie as a very Callie dude-bro fellow journalist at the small town newspaper, and also the boyfriend of Liz’s BFF. This guy actually keeps a surfboard in his office.

Observations: This is a timely reflection on the precarious state of modern print journalism, with local newspapers being gobbled up by unprincipled media companies.

Just kidding. This is bad movie. This is a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad movie. Let us take some time to reflect on just some of the things wrong with this movie.

It takes the clumsy girl trope to ridiculous extremes. I lost count of how many times Liz fell down. She actually opens the movie by falling out of bed.

The director chose to speed up the camera at various points in the film. It’s wacky, but not in a good way.

There are continuity errors – as, for instance, when Tom hears with genuine shock a plot point that he’s already explained to another character.

Terrible use of green screen. Also, maybe the worst song I’ve ever heard plays over the end credits.

Dumb homophobic jokes. Sexism. Liz griping in print about the lack of men that “open doors for us, that pick up the check” and also that when a “good” man DOES come along, “some other cougar’s already sunk her claws into him.” Fat shaming. Tom refers to his best friend as “Fat man” and jokes to his friend’s wife about him being fat. By the way, the friend is not fat.

Both lead characters are unlovable monsters. Tom is a poor-people hating narcissist who cares only about the television show that the media company (Shepherd Communications) is going to give him IF they shut down the community newspaper (The Marin County Voice). He is mean to his friends, brags about dating playmates, and has a pet Beta fish that he harasses by tapping on the glass and insisting it talk to him. We’re supposed to think he’s just a rough around the edges rascal, even when he’s raging about charity appeals for “people who are too lazy to get jobs” and who are not getting a penny of his “hard earned” money.

Liz, while she’s supposed to be the warmhearted, Christmas-loving idealist, is just as bad as Tom. Her relationship advice is garbage, and when she starts her NEW column – “Tis the Season” – it contains such world-changing advice as “Don’t let life pass you by”; “Look around”; “Live in the moment”; and “Slow down.” This makes the paper so wildly popular that their sales increase by 20% overnight and everyone on the streets in San Francisco is suddenly reading the Marin County Voice. Oh, by the way, Liz rallied her colleagues to the idea of the new column with a spectacular rant that was somewhere between Network and Norma Rae. In fact, as she was shouting, I thought, ‘If she’d climb on her desk this would be very Norma Rae.” Then she climbed on her desk. Oh, but back to her being a monster: at a party she steals a drink from a stranger’s hand and drinks it in front of him, and later physically attacks Tom – allowing her to fall again when they crash into the punch table. She’s just awful and out of control. Early in the film she holds a kitten and it tries to claw her face (ignored by the director who was clearly hoping for an adorable moment). I was rooting for the kitten.

Side note: You can tell that Liz is a serious journalist fighting for press freedom when she switches from Fashion Bug business casual to menswear, including a tie.Again, her column is vapid inspirationalism, but she gets so many fan letters that it’s like the court scene in Miracle on 34th Street, and the filibuster scene in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington combined. It’s so stupid. Also, her co-workers keep putting mail bags full of letters in the doorway to Liz’s office, giving her more opportunities to fall down.

Liz’s new column is wildly successful, as I said, but her boss tells her to be “less Norman Rockwell and more Rockefeller Center.” What? Why? Everyone in San Francisco is now reading your paper! Your sales are up 20% – and in this economy?!?

Finally…a word about the romance. Tom and Liz do not meet until 52 minutes into the film, and then only briefly. They have a couple of other brief meetings – mostly hostile – while everyone around them insists they are falling in love, until the last few minutes of the film. Tom has a thought montage of memories of Liz that has to be drawn from their very few moments together, which is pretty hilarious, really. It’s in slow motion because that’s the only way you can make it look like they’ve spent enough time together for him to even remember her name.

I don’t think I’m communicating well how bad this movie is. It’s very bad. You should watch it: it’s that bad.

Official Entry #39: Christmas Crush, aka Holiday High School Reunion (2012)

Watched: December 14, 2019

Georgia is back home for Christmas, which is conveniently timed to coincide with her high school reunion (10 years, from the looks of it?). She reconnects with her high school bestie, Ben (who has always secretly loved her) as well as her old cheerleading and glee club squad. But her real hope is to reunite with her high school boyfriend, for whom she’s still pining. The reunion is a mixture of humiliations and revelations, leading Georgia to realize that it was Ben. It was always Ben who made high school so special, not her cheating, lunkhead of a boyfriend. She and Ben kiss on the dance floor, and all is well.

Our Romantic Couple: Georgia (Rachel Boston) and Ben (Jonathan Bennett)

Their Meet-Cute: Well, they’ve known each other forever…but after losing touch, they run into each other a Christmas tree lot.

Star Power Casting: Marilu Henner (Taxi) as Georgia’s mom – making her second appearance as a mom in the rom-com-athon. Also, Harry Hamlin (LA Law) as a high school chemistry teacher. And do you know who Jonathan Bennett is???? He’s teen comedy royalty! That’s Aaron Samuels, losers!

The 110% Award: Jon Prescott as Craig, the high school boyfriend. He plays dumb really well.

Observations: I had high hopes for this one because the lead actress has a sweet, wholesome charm; and because I genuinely love Marilu Henner – and also, because Aaron Samuels. But it turned out to just be a stupid, ugly, unfunny ripoff of Mean Girls, with a pinch of Romey and Michelle’s High School Reunion thrown in for good measure.

The cheerleading/glee club “friends” are a direct copy of the crew from Mean Girls – queen bee, slavish sidekick, slightly sweeter but very dim blonde. They even include the iconic slow mo walk toward the camera, taken from MG.

Why did this high school’s “award winning” glee club have only four members? Why were there song/dance numbers so terrible? Why do they still have their costumes on hand for these numbers? Oh, wait! I know! So that they could copy the Jingle Bell Rock scene from Mean Girls! Except that they do a version of It Came Upon a Midnight Clear which is the most profane things I’ve seen in any of these movies.

Also – so you get a sense of how shameless the copying is, Georgia struggles with the dance in the “glee club” number because the queen bee has switched her position. Gretchen Wieners, anyone?

Why is this high school – a still functioning school – basically a shrine to Georgia’s class? The graffiti in the bathroom, the pictures in the trophy case, even items left in the lockers are all from *that* class. It seems wildly unlikely.

The subplot about one of the mean girls trying to seduce the chemistry teacher is gross.

What is wrong with Georgia’s memory? She’s forgotten some really critical events from her senior year. Has she sustained a TBI since then?

And aside from the decorations all over Georgia’s family home, there’s not much that’s Christmasy about this movie. I feel like a Christmas movie have a large dose of Christmas should be a requirement.

Official Entry #40: Married By Christmas (2016)

Watched: December 15, 2019

In which an overly ambitious career girl discovers on Thanksgiving day that she must marry before her sister or lose any share of the family business, to which she’s devoted her life. Can she find a husband in a month? I won’t spoil this one for you, because if you must watch a Christmas rom-com, this is a decent pick.

Our Romantic Couple: Carrie (Jes Macallan) and Dylan (Coby Ryan McLaughlin)

Their Meet Cute: He’s the lawyer representing a vineyard that Carrie’s family business is trying to acquire. They spar over the terms, but then – uh oh! – it turns out that he’s ALSO the best man in her Carrie’s sister’s wedding.

Star Power Casting: James Eckhouse (Beverly Hills 90210) as Carrie’s dad, and Lee Garlington (so many things) as the mom.

The 110% Award: Lauren Pritchard as Carrie’s assistant, Zelda. She’s quirky and perky and both Gal Friday and therapist.

Observations: Thank God, this movie is pretty good. I mean, it’s not Every Other Holiday good, but it’s close. The high concept is the usual holiday rom-com tripe – a woman trying to get married in a month to save her inheritance – but it’s delivered with more humor and better acting than 90% of these movies.

Jes Macallan is a good actress. IMDB tells me she was in DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, but I’ve never seen it. The cast in general is solid, people behaving like actual people – which is not always a given in these movies.

Early on Carrie targets an old friend as a potential husband. Paul, played by Ryan Caltagirone, is a funny, easy going sweetheart and I was worried about how the movie was going to shift the viewer’s loyalty to Dylan, who Carrie hates for the first half of the movie. When she desperately proposes, Paul tells Carrie that he’s gay – adding him to the very short list of gay characters I’ve encountered. The movie makes a little joke about Carrie being the last person to figure out that Paul is gay, but I appreciated that he wasn’t a cartoon.

Despite the fact that their relationship starts with tension, and he works as a lawyer, Dylan is as good a guy as Paul. The future brother-in-law, an organic farmer and forager, is also decent. Even Carrie’s dad is kindly and supportive. There are NO TERRIBLE MEN in this movie. In fact, there are no terrible people, no villains. It was kind of a refreshing change. Carrie is probably the most difficult character, but her bad behavior fits the circumstances. I joined with her in railing against the patriarchy.

In short, I’m giving this one a thumbs up.

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Some Running Totals from All the Movies So Far

Dead mothers – 14
Characters own restaurant, cafe, or diner – 10
Snowstorms – 12
Characters shown baking – 15
Terrible “big city” boyfriends (probably work in finance) – 12
Cute, extremely clumsy young women – 8
Dramatic interruptions – 8
Characters pretend to be dating, engaged, or married – 8
“Adorable” children – 17
Adorable dogs – 7
Overly ambitious career girls – 15
Quaint, Christmas-obsessed small towns – 10
Christmas proposals and weddings – 15