In Which I Offer a Modest Defense of Christmas Rom-Coms

I am nearly done: just five more movies to go. Having my last few movies coincide with the last few days before Christmas is logical, of course, and fitting, but it’s also bananas. I need to shop and cook and clean and wrap. I don’t have time to watch movies and write about them! The only saving grace is that, as I said in an earlier chapter, I can watch these movies while getting at least some things done. I’ve taken to watching them on my laptop in the kitchen while I chop vegetables or bake cookies. I think I will get it all done, but it’s all – and by all I mean both my last few reviews and my preparations for Christmas – going to be a little more slapdash than usual. I wish I could work with the efficiency of a Hallmark heroine who can brainstorm a fundraising Christmas festival for her entire town on December 20 and pull it off by the 24th.

But I digress. What I really want to talk about is this: it may just be that these are the movies America needs right now. Think about how stressful the world in general is. I won’t dwell on it too long, because I don’t want to whip up your anxiety or mine, but you may have noticed that we live in tumultuous times. We are politically polarized (for some very good reasons) and in the middle of a presidential impeachment. Protests are erupting all over the globe, with violent responses from many governments. The U.K. is a mess. Australia is on fire. Weather predictions for the Midwest are already telling us to brace for heavy flooding this spring. Also, our family had three cars break down in the same week this month, my oldest daughter has some mysterious health problems, extended family members are facing various ordeals, and this morning I have a backache.

Life is stressful, for all of us. Do you know what is generally not stressful? Holiday rom-coms. I heard this defense of the movies almost as soon as I announced this project. An old friend, as sharp-tongued and sentiment-resistant as myself, told me that she watches these movies as a break from the very real trials of her daily life. In the Hallmarkish world I’ve inhabited for the last month and a half, people have died in the past (especially mothers), but almost no one dies in the present. Jobs are occasionally lost, but a magical second career will be launched by the 89th minute. People can survive, in style, as free lance writers, ice sculptors, blacksmiths, Christmas party planners, painters, and mall Santas. Poor people exist, but are only shown inside cozy churches, community centers, or Christmas inns receiving hearty meals and stacks of gifts from charming young couples who are meant to be together. There is no racism: in fact, interracial families are everywhere. Police….do they even exist in this world? Are they even needed? Don’t get me wrong: there is pain in this world. It usually involves having your boyfriend with a career in finance break up with you just before you go home for the holidays, or having that handsome but clumsy lumberjack break the glass ornament that your mother crafted for you just before she died. Those charming couples do argue, and breakup, in these hermetically sealed snow globe worlds – but fret not, they will be reconciled before Nana can even set the buche de Noel on the table after Christmas dinner. (Side note: the buche du Noel is the official dessert of Holiday rom-coms. I should have put it on the bingo card.)

In short, everything is fine or will be fine before the credits roll in the world of Hallmarkish holiday movies. I, being who I am, still managed to stress over a few of these movies. I worry about deadlines and Stockholm syndrome even though I know it will all sort itself out. But really, there is no viewing experience that requires less of you mentally or takes less of a toll emotionally than a holiday rom-com.

So while I may have made fun of you for watching them in the past, friends, I won’t do that anymore. Life is hard. These movies are easy. Escapism gets a bad rap. Relax. Enjoy. I’m pretty sure the world is going to continue to spin out of control, but you can deal with that tomorrow. Tonight, Claire and Luke, or Holly and Andy; or Abby and Josh, et all, will be fine and happy in less than 90 minutes.

Official Entry #41: A Twist of Christmas (2018)

Watched December 16, 2019

A tightly wound parenting advice columnist and a Mr. Business single dad run afoul of each other in a toy store, three days before Christmas. When they wind up taking the wrong toys home – he’s got her son’s robot, she’s got his daughter’s unicorn – they have to find each other, get the toys exchanged, learn life lessons, and fall in love. And all on a timeline that made no sense whatsoever.

Our Romantic Couple: Abby (Vanessa Lachey) and Ryan (Brendon Zub)

Their Meet-Cute: They meet at the counter in a toy store, where they both insist that they be waited on first. Sparks fly.

Star Power Casting: Rick Fox (retired basketball player, The Game) as the parenting expert Abby idolizes and who she has a chance to interview two days before Christmas. Also, Hiro Kanagawa as Abby’s dad. Most recently you might have seen him in iZombie, or Altered Carbon, or The Man in the High Castle – but he really has had a prolific career.

The 110% Award: Christian Convery as Abby’s whiny son. These movies often feature child actors that I don’t find especially winsome, but Convery didn’t have much to work with since his character, Elliot was written to be a pain in the neck.

Observations: I wanted to like this movie. This is the third time I’ve seen Brendan Zub and he’s handsome and can deliver a line. Lachey is lovely, and I’m always happy to have a break from the generic white girls who typically star in these movies. Also, I really liked Abby’s parents. But it just didn’t work at all. Both Ryan and Abby are on deadlines: he’s “working on a contract” which is very, very important. She’s got a small time slot in which to interview her hero, parenting expert Dr. Thomas Baxter – she’s supposed to meet him at 10 a.m. and have the interview turned in to the magazine by 5:00 p.m. But the movie consists almost entirely of the two of them talking about working on these things while they…pick the parents up at the airport, go buy a tree, decorate the tree, go skating, walk to the store to buy hot chocolate, play charades, go to Ryan’s office party, etc, etc, The day stretches on forever, because I’m pretty sure this was all one day. Honestly, it was stressing me out, and these movies aren’t supposed to be stressful. Why did I, a viewer, care more about the deadlines than the characters??? At Ryan’s office party, where Abby is naturally pretending to be his ex-girlfriend, she tells his boss that he deserves a promotion because he works so hard – and at that point, we haven’t seen him work at all.

Also, in the brief few seconds when Ryan does work he uses Abby’s laptop without permission and accidentally “loses” her latest version of her interview. This turns out to be the “boy loses girl” moment in the narrative arc, but she yells two things that made me take his side. 1) She admits that she doesn’t save her documents. What? You’re a writer-for-hire, and you’re that careless with your output? Also, consider a program that auto-saves. 2) As he’s offering to try to help her retrieve the document, she she yells, “It’s too late! I’ve already missed my deadline! I don’t miss deadlines!” But the thing is, this episode happens in the middle of a game of charades. She wasn’t working 30 seconds ago. She was playing charades.

I’d also like to point out that Elliot’s hand bell concert is stupid. He gets cold feet and the teacher makes the entire class and audience wait an interminable amount of time while Ryan gives him a pep talk and also dresses up as a tree so that he can be on stage with Elliot as moral support, so that Abby can leave her interview with Dr. Baxter (having determined that he’s a fraud) and walk at a comfortable pace to the concert she’s presumably missing and show up just in time to see her child perform. There’s no way that would happen.

Side note: the parent showing up at the concert late but just in time to see their child perform is one of my favorite cliches. Once you start looking for it, you’ll see it everywhere.

Oh, and! I almost forgot! What is the weather like in this place? Where are we? It seems warm, but people are wearing winter-ish clothes. But late in the evening when it starts to snow the french doors on Abby’s house are wide open. Is she trying to heat the entire neighborhood? What must her power bill be? Has she heard that we’re in climate crisis???

Best/Worst Line: Abby’s mom, at the Christmas tree farm: “When you find the right tree you might just want to buy it before someone else snaps it up.” Abby’s mom is not actually talking about trees. Wink.

One last thing. Ryan, who is divorced and usually alone on Christmas says he typically goes for a “long jog” on Christmas. No even semi-serious runner calls it a jog, dude. That’s just embarrassing.

Conclusion: This movie gave me an anxiety attack.

Official Entry #42: A Cinderella Story: A Christmas Wish (2019)

Watched December 17, 2019

Beleaguered young aspiring singer – and elf at the local Santa’s cottage – finds love with the scion of a billionaire, but must overcome the wiles of her evil stepmother and stepsisters to live happily ever after. Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

Our Romantic Couple: Kat (Laura Marano) and Dominic (Gregg Skulkin)

Their Meet-Cute: She falls down and spills frappuccino all over herself (it’s her stepsister’s fault). He helps her up.

Star Power Casting: It’s a bit slim. But Kat’s best friend and fairy godmother, Isla, is played by Isabella Gomez of One Day at a Time (the remake).

The 110% Award: It’s a tough call, with a few qualifiers. I’m giving it to Garfield Wilson as Kat’s boss, Mr. Mujiza, who is constantly threatening to fire people.

Observations: Johanna Newmarch, the evil stepmother, was also a villain in The Christmas Calendar. She’s an effective baddie.

There is no literal magic in this movie, so rather than mice or a fairy producing dresses, Kat’s two ballgowns are created by her best friend, seemingly overnight. I have a friend who is a costume design and construction professional and I suspect this would make her scream. I mean, she actually made my wedding dress and it took a fitting or two and significantly more than one night.

I know representation matters, but what kind of Santa’s village hires a skinny 18 year old boy (Dominic) to play their Santa?

This movie has the Clark Kent problem. We’re supposed to believe that Dominic can’t recognize Kat when she’s in her elf costume, but her face is still completely visible. Maybe he’s face blind.

Laura Marano is a Disney Channel veteran (Austin & Ally), but I don’t like her. I would rather that Isla had been the main character.

The most egregious problem with this movie is that it’s a musical and Laura Marano is heavily auto-tuned. Kat is an aspiring singer/songwriter but I’m skeptical of how well she sings given the amount of modification done to her voice.

Best/worst Line: Stepsister Grace refers to Kat’s deceased father as “Dead Dad”. It was honestly my favorite thing in the entire movie.

Not a very Christmasy movie. Not much fun.

Official Entry #43: The Princess Switch (2018)

Watched: December 18, 2019

Feisty Chicago baker travels with her best friend (her sous chef) and his adorable child to Belgravia to compete in a baking competition. There she meets the intended of Belgravia’s prince, a countess who looks just. like. her. They switch lives for a couple of days and both fall in love with the “wrong” right guy. Soon the baker is marrying the prince, the countess is engaged to the sous chef, and everyone is living happily ever after.

Our Romantic Couple: Stacy (Vanessa Hudgens) and Prince Edward (Sam Palladio) and Lady Margaret (Vanessa Hudgens) and Kevin (Nick Sagar)

Their Meet-Cute: This is too confusing. And there really aren’t any meet-cutes, anyway.

Star Power Casting: Well, you’ve got Vanessa Hudgens. And Sam Palladio and Nick Sagar have both done a lot of series work. That will have to do for this movie.

The 110% Award: Robin Soans as the twinkly eyed little man who keeps showing up everywhere vaguely hinting that he can grant wishes.

Observations: This was a Netflix movie on a Halllmark budget. Awful green screen work, super fake looking snow, and the fakiest fake looking cakes you’ve ever seen.

It’s really not that easy to impersonate another human being, even if you look like them – particularly if you have to pick up an accent. Fortunately, Vanessa Hudgens can’t do a high quality British accent, so that makes the whole idea of Stacy impersonating Margaret’s fakey fake accent kind of meta.

You know who did a good job with a fake English accent? Young Lindsay Lohan killed it in The Parent Trap (1998). And young Haley Mills pulled off quite a good American accent in the original Parent Trap in 1961.

Lady Margaret is from Montenaro, which raises the number of fictional countries in the Netflix Christmas universe to three: Aldovia, Belgravia, and Montenaro.

Speaking of Aldova, Margaret and Kevin watched The Christmas Prince on Netflix.

Best/Worst Lines: The cheek of this sexual innuendo! Stacy is dissing a mean girl baker from her culinary school who says that she (mean girl) spent a lot of one on one time learning from their instructors. Stacey says, “Oh, yeah? Like when you sauced Professor Wendell’s berries?” Yowza! This is a family show, Netflix!

Official Entry #44: Holiday in Handcuffs (2007)

Watched: December 20, 2019

When Trudie’s boyfriend breaks up with her just before she heads home for Christmas, she kidnaps a stranger and convinces her family that he’s the boyfriend. After a few desperate attempts to escape, the hostage, David, starts to enjoy the family holiday and falls in love with his captor. Trudie learns important life lessons, David doesn’t file criminal charges, and they live happily ever after.

Our Romantic Couple: Trudie (Melissa Joan Hart) and David (Mario Lopez)

Their Meet-Cute: He is a customer in the restaurant where she works. She takes him hostage at gunpoint. Super cute!

Star Power Casting: Markie Post (Night Court) as Trudie’s mom; Timothy Bottoms (distinguished film career and Land of the Lost!) as Trudie’s dad; Kyle Howard (My Boys) as Trudie’s brother; and June Lockhart (Lassie, Lost in Space, Petticoat Junction) as Trudie’s grandmother.

The 110% Award: Melissa Joan Hart’s perm.

Observations: This movie’s reputation looms large, and I started watching it with trepidation. How much suffering would this involve? The answer is very little, because this is one of the few movies I’ve seen that is so extravagantly bananas that it was so-bad-it’s-good. This movie makes National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation seem like Italian neorealism. It is, after all, a romantic comedy about a hostage falling in love with his kidnapper after her entire family ignores his pleas for help. It’s next level Stockholm Syndrome. It’s Misery, adapted for ABC Family. There is a scene early in the movie in which David is trying to get Trudie’s phone so he can call for help. She grabs a meat tenderizer from the kitchen counter and I swear I thought she was going to hit him with it. Thank God, she smashes the phone, but I really thought we were going in a very dark direction. Then I remembered this is a movie about a kidnapping and realized we’d already gone dark.

Holiday in Handcuffs originally aired on ABC Family, which is weird because there are a lot of jokes about sex in this movie. The mother uses the word “boink”, for heaven’s sake. I felt violated. But credit where credit is due, Trudie’s brother comes out as gay and there are no stupid gay jokes – and this was in 2007.

By the way, David and Trudie play ice hockey and she falls backward on the ice, like, ten times. I’d lay money that she has a concussion. In fact, maybe she’s already been concussed playing hockey with her family, and that explains her poor impulse control (as evidenced by the fact that she responds to a breakup by KIDNAPPING A STRANGER AT GUNPOINT). Head trauma can really do a number on you!

Remember when I said a surprising number of these movies show the male lead shirtless? If you want to see Mario Lopez shirtless and wrapped in a towel, this is your flick.

The grandmother, played by June Lockhart, is a former actress who wanders through the movie like Norma Desmond, ruing her lost career. “I was on Broadway!” “I played Medea!” We get it, June. You deserve better than this film. Just be grateful you didn’t get the Doris Roberts’ role in Merry Kissmas.

Trudie’s whole family seems detached from reality. It’s like a slasher film when you find yourself in an isolated area trapped with a family of inbred cannibals – only this is a super white middle class family who all laugh off the pleas of a perfect stranger telling them he’s been kidnapped by their daughter. It wouldn’t seem that much weirder if Trudie actually did hit David with that meat tenderizer and they ended up cooking him in meat pies (perhaps while Grandma recalls having played Tamora in Titus Andronicus) But of course, this isn’t that kind of movie. So instead David plays touch football with the family, and exchanges gifts, and realizes that Trudie is not a dangerous psychopath *per se*. She’s just a struggling artist trying not to disappoint her parents. How can David resist this needy little chatter box with her antique firearm? “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.”

This was very bizarre and very entertaining. You should watch it.

Official Entry #45: Wrapped Up in Christmas

Watched: December 20, 2019

Heather is an overly ambitious mall manager, assigned to terminate the leases of stores not generating enough profit, right before Christmas. Ryan is a lawyer who is helping at his aunt’s toy store and who is smitten with Heather from the moment they meet at a Christmas tree lot. He woos her, she falls for him, then her aunt gets notification that her lease is being terminated. Sparks fly. Lessons are learned. They wind up together and the toy store is saved!

Our Romantic Couple: Heather (Tatyana Ali) and Ryan (Brendan Fehr)

Their Meet-Cute: It happens at a Christmas tree lot. It seems to be very important later in the movie – Ryan even paints a picture of Heather among the Christmas trees – and I swear I was watching, but i don’t remember anything else about it. It’s so hard to give my full attention to most of these movies.

Star Power Casting: (Sit back, get comfortable. This is going to take a while.)
Tatyana Ali was little sister Ashley on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Brendan Fehr is another “Where have I seen that guy?” actor, but he did play Jordan Booth on Bones. That was Ceely’s brother, right? (My Bones obsessed daughter could answer that question.
Kim Fields (The Facts of Life) as Heather’s sister.
Jasmine Guy (A Different World) as her mother.
Joseph Marcell (The Fresh Prince of Bel Air) as her dad.
Cindy Pickett (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) as Ryan’s aunt.
Dan Lauria (The Wonder Years) and Mindy Sterling (iCarly, the Austin Powers films, The Goldbergs, etc.) as other mall leasees.
Jackée Harry (The 227) as Heather’s boss.

The 110% Award: Lee Liston as Sammy the Elf. His first line in the movie, a dryly delivered, “Sup?” somehow won me over completely.

Observations: Okay, how could I not enjoy watching a movie with that cast? If they’d thrown in Tichina Arnold, Erika Alexander, and Reggie VelJohnson, I would have died of happiness.

My daughter kept predicting what was going to happen in this movie. I’m not saying it was predictable, but…

Ryan has the inside info from Heather’s adorable niece on the things Heather loves – including A Christmas Carol, which she reads every year. Ryan goes to the bookstore in the mall and asks for “a book about Christmas carols”. Ryan, a lawyer, not only has never read A Christmas Carol, he doesn’t even know what it is. That would be a deal breaker for me, to be honest. He does say, however, that he’s watched both Scrooged and A Muppet Christmas Carol. The bookstore owner makes a snide remark about this, which is uncalled for. Everyone knows that A Muppet Christmas Carol is brilliant.

This is the homiest mall ever. Each store has only one or two employees, everyone is everyone’s business, everyone is sweet and cheerful. Is that what your mall is like? It’s not what my mall is like.

Why do these movies keep showing skinny young men playing Santa? Any Santa’s village worth its salt hires an old man with a real white beard. Start trying, you guys.

Jasmine Guy is only 7 years older than Kim Fields, but plays her mother. It’s the Manchurian Candidate phenomenon!

Best/worst line, and one my daughter predicted: “I’m a corporate stooge. No! I’m a corporate Scrooge!”

There are a lot of Dickens references in this movie, so you can bet when carolers show up, they’re in Dickensian costumes. Plus 1 on that bingo card!

This was a perfectly adequate mediocre film with a thoroughly charming cast. It didn’t hurt to watch it.

Want to support this endeavor, feed hungry kids, and help me get through movies 46-50?  Go here to learn about the great organization we’re supporting, and comment here to let me know if you want to pledge. You can also make a one-time donation, and that is fantastic, but please let me know if you do. We’re trying to get a rough idea of what this fundraiser accomplishes so we can all celebrate together at the end.

Some Running Totals from All the Movies So Far

Dead mothers – 18
Characters own restaurant, cafe, or diner – 12
Snowstorms – 13
Characters shown baking – 16
Terrible “big city” boyfriends (probably work in finance) – 13
Cute, extremely clumsy young women – 10
Dramatic interruptions – 10
Characters pretend to be dating, engaged, or married – 11
“Adorable” children – 21
Adorable dogs – 8
Overly ambitious career girls – 17
Quaint, Christmas-obsessed small towns – 10
Christmas proposals and weddings – 16