In Praise of Older Leading Ladies

You know one thing I appreciate about Hallmark rom-coms? It’s not unusual for the female leads to be in the 30s, 40, or even 50s. Hallmark movies do a lot of dumb things, but at least they don’t worship youth. In their movies middle aged woman can be desirable, can fall in love, can restart their lives. It’s a pleasant change, honestly.

I ran the numbers. There are 35 different lead actresses in the Hallmark holidays released this year. The average age of those actresses is 40. The youngest is 30. The oldest, Holly Robinson Peete, is 56. For comparison I looked at the leading actresses in 2018 and 2019 released-in-theater romance movies. The average age was 34. It’s a little thing, perhaps, but as an “older” woman – older than all of these actresses except Holly Robinson Peet – I appreciate Hallmark acknowldging that we’re not dead yet. (I’m also aware that this is only possible because the Hallmark Channel’s viewership skews older. Nanas know we’ve still got groove.)

Entry #36: Godmothered (2020)

Watched: December 10, 2020
Available on Disney+

Eleanor is a young fairy godmother in training who finds out that the order of fairy godmothers is being terminated due to lack of assignments. In an effort to save her job she travels to earth to answer a request from a young girl – not realizing that girl is a grown woman and mother now. Eleanor tries to help cynical, widowed Mackenzie find her “happily ever after” but mostly wreaks chaos. Nevertheless, she helps Mackenzie find hope and encourages her teenage daughter, Jane, to overcome her fears.

Our Barely Romantic Couple: Mackenzie (Isla Fisher) and Hugh (Santiago Cabrera)

Their Meet-Cute: None. They work together.

Star Power Casting: Isla Fisher (Wedding Crashers) as Mackenzie and Jillian Bell (Brittany Runs a Marathon) as Eleanor. Also Jane Curtain (SNL, Third Rock from the Sun) as Moira, the head fairy godmother, and June Squibb (Nebraska) as Agnes, a fairy godmother who is Eleanor adviser and confidant.

The 110% Award: Gary, the enchanted raccoon

“I liked it, but it was Elf, beginning to end.” – my daughter, Tess, summing it up nicely.

Entry #37: A Snow Globe Christmas (2013)

Watched: December 11, 2020
Available on the Lifetime Movie Club App

Meg is a driven and ambitious director for made-for-TV Christmas movies with a Handsome Mr. Business boyfriend. After she bonks herself on the head with a snow globe containing a perfect little Christmas village, she wakes up in that village, with a husband and children, living out the plot of a Christmas movie. What will it take to get back home? And will Meg be changed by her time living the perfect Christmas life?

Our Romantic Couple: Meg (Alicia Witt) and Ted (Donald Faison)

Their Meet-Cute: Current day Meg meets Ted when she wakes up in the alternative reality where he is her husband. He thinks she’s been concussed by a snowball. However, in the real world they knew each other in college.

Star Power Casting: Donald Faison (Turk on Scrubs)

The 110% Award: None

Observations: Here we have the right role for Alicia Witt. There’s something sharp and brittle about her that suits the Scrooge-like character she plays in the beginning of this movie. It’s a much better fit than having her play a standard perky Christmas girl.

Speaking of Scrooge, Meg is obviously based on Bill Murray’s character in Scrooged who produced a Christmas special while treating his employees like…well, like elves. “Christmas is not for the elves!” Meg makes her film crew chant to her as she makes them work late on Christmas Eve.

Because she knows there’s no swearing Christmas movies, Meg tries to avoid swearing in “Christmas Town” (if the town was given a name, I’ve forgotten it). This leads to her saying things like, “I’m in my standards-and-practices-don’t-swear-freaking-movie.” At another point she describes a car as being “way out in….bumblefudge.” Reader, I laughed.

Meg’s motto when trying to decide how to behave in Christmas Town is WWMOD – What Would Marie Osmond Do? Has Marie Osmond been in Christmas movies? I haven’t run across any, but I see a Google search in my near future.

This has a wittier script than many of these films, and a smarter one. There are a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan references scattered throughout, as Ted and Meg had a history in college musical theater. The phrase “short sharp shock” from The Mikado is slipped in several times.

The artificiality of Christmas Town is well done. It looks sunny and warm – not a winter sun, mind you – but everything is covered in snow. Ted’s house is in a forest, but Meg walks directly out of the forest and into the town’s quaint downtown. The wise old man who lives nearby asks Meg to call him not “Mr. Barnes” but “Old Man Barnes, like in Scooby Doo” (this is a joke that will pay off later). And there is an old fashioned train that takes you nowhere but around the town.

Meg’s presence in Christmas Town nearly destroys it. She wants to “professionalize” the children’s Christmas pageant, sell off the forest for profit, and reconnect with the mayor, who is her boyfriend in real life. Meanwhile, her husband Ted, convinced she’s experiencing something between a concussion and a midlife crisis, tries to patiently wait out her “delusion” that she doesn’t belong there. While this is a boilerplate “something magical happens” Christmas plot, it’s handled better than more. The humor is better, but the stakes seem higher, too. This is largely due to Donald Faison giving an above average performance. Ted is very warm and lovable, and when Meg insists, over and over, that she is not Ted’s wife, Faison makes the pain palpable.

One thing, though. In a scene in a restaurant, Meg orders rice pudding and spends the rest of the scene vigorously chewing it as she talks. Do you really have to chew rice pudding that much?

Entry #38: A Golden Christmas (2009)

Alternate Title: Air Bud: Matchmaker
Watched: December 12, 2020
Available on the Lifetime Movie Club App

Jessica is a widowed-driven-big-city-lawyer-single-parent who decides to move back home and wants to surprise her parents at Christmas by telling them she plans to buy their house (which has been on the market for months). Uh oh! It’s just been placed under contract with another buyer! Michael is a handsome-divorced-woodcarving-anti-Mr. Business-single-parent who has adopted a stray golden retriever but fails to give it a name. Jessica determines to stop Michael from buying her childhood home, but sparks fly between her and Michael. Also, she remembers a childhood friend nicknamed “Han” – her nickname was “Leia” – and another dog from long ago who looked very much like Michael’s dog. Who will get the house? What will happen between Michael and Jessica? Where is Han? And will the dog ever get a name?

Our Romantic Couple: Jessica (Andrea Roth) and Michael (Nicholas Brendon)

Their Meet-Cute: Jessica is frightened by strange noises outside her parents’ front door, but it turns out to be an adorable golden retriever in a Santa costume. Michael follows his dog to the house and he and Jessica chat amiably until she finds out he’s the potential buyer for the house.

Star Power Casting: Nicholas Brendon was Xander on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Jessica’s parents are played by Alley Mills (Kevin Arnold’s mom on The Wonder Years) and Bruce Davison (Willard, Longtime Companion, X-Men and X2). Jason London (Dazed and Confused) appears as Jessica’s annoying brother-in-law, Mitch, and Elisa Donovan (Sabrina the Teenage Witch) is Jessica’s sister, Anna.

The 110% Award: Robert Seay as Chet, Jessica’s friend from high school who is now a real estate agent. Chet shifts from sweetly fawning over the girl he remembers as being so nice to him as a teen to being appalled by Jessica’s behavior in trying to undermine Michael’s purchase of her parents home. He gets flattened by Jessica along the way, and without ever being meanspirited is willing to call out her rotten character. It’s a part mostly played for laughs, with a “lovable loser” undercurrent. But Chet triumphs in the end.

Observations: This movie caught my eye for one reason, and one reason only: Nicholas Brendon. As I said in my review of Holiday Wishes, I am a big Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan. BIG. I also said that all Buffy cast members have my ongoing unconditional support. Nicholas Brendon really strains that commitment. He’s had a series of personal problems over the years, many related to addiction. But he’s also been involved in more than one incident of domestic violence. Nicholas, my dude, no amount of alcohol is an excuse for harming your girlfriend. Brendon is currently serving out his most recent sentence of community service and domestic violence counseling.

Speaking of Nicholas Brendon, my daughter once ran into him at a bowling alley in St. Louis. She texted me, “Look who I just met!” then sent a selfie of the two of them together.

There is a LOT Of passive aggressive behavior in Jessica’s family. It’s explained later in the movie but the heaps of guilt laid on her for not visiting more often are pretty rough.

Jessica tantrums at her parents for selling the house out from under her – when, in fact, they had no idea she was interested in buying it. Davison and Mills play their exasperation with her behavior just right. I was 100% on their side of the argument from the jump.

When Michael comes to retrieve his dog he makes the most awkward joke I’ve ever heard in a Christmas rom-com. The dog is a female who is dressed in a Santa costume because she appeared in Michael’s daughter’s school Christmas play. “How did she get that part?” Jessica asks. And Michael replies, “She sleeps with the director occasionally.” He’s….talking about a dog. And a person. I don’t think a bestiality jokes in front of the kids was the way to go, bud.

Jessica’s sister, Anna, is a holistic therapist. Much is made of the different life paths of the two sisters. At one point Anna is talking to her mother and says, “For those of us who decided to become colossal disappointments and not lawyers,” at which point her mother interrupts and says, “Oh, honey, you’re not a COLOSSAL disappointment.” Ouch!

This is the second move in a row in which the male lead is a woodcarver. Apparently it’s a more lucrative field than I realized.

Michael is a bit of a sexist. While he and Jessica, a federal prosecutor, are bickering over the house he says to her, “I thought you were a sweet girl.” At another point he says, “You were really cute the other day.” If Jessica wasn’t such a B, that condescension would have had me rooting for him to lose the house.

Nicholas Brendon wears the same baggy jeans in this movie that he wore through most of Buffy. I mean, not the same PAIR, I hope, but the same very oversized style. It’s weird.

Melody Hollis is very good as Michael’s daughter, Madeline. She’s just the right amount of adorable.

If there’s one thing we learn from this holiday rom-coms, it’s that you do NOT want to be single. Seldom is that message delivered so crudely, though, as in a scene in which Jessica – having alienated Michael – walks down the street observing happy couples. Then the camera freezes on an old woman, sitting along, existential horror on her face. It is GRIM.

This entire movie feels a bit like a fugue state. It is well acted but dang, it’s a downer. I was actually afraid the dog was going to die at one point. I should have known better since this dog is a magical angelic dog. Don’t let the movie poster fool you, though. There are puppies, but they don’t show up until about five minutes before the credits roll.

Entry #39: Never Kiss a Man in a Christmas Sweater (2020)

Alternate Title: A Very Merry Misappropriation of Defense Funds
Watched: December 12, 2020
Available on the Frndly App

Maggie is a divorced single mom who teaches second grade on or near a military base (unclear). One day, at the park, she meets a man in a Christmas sweater watching his nephew – she assumes it’s his son. She tells her best friend that one should never kiss a man in a Christmas sweater. Friends, this is what we call foreshadowing. Anywho, the next day she hits him with a Christmas tree while he’s out for a run, and he breaks his wrist thus ending his hopes of skiing over Christmas vacation. Turns out that his name is Lucas and he’s a big city hotshot architect in town to visit his brother. Since he’s now stuck – I guess? – over the holidays, Maggie offers to let Lucas stay in her guest house. Sparks fly. She harasses him into volunteering with the winter break day camp for the children of deployed soldiers. He rethinks his life choices and also organizes her art studio so she can get back to painting again. They kiss, then GREAT MISUNDERSTANDING, then they make up and he decides to be a small town architect instead of a big city architect. The end.

Our Romantic Couple: Maggie (Ashely Williams) and Lucas (Niall Matter)Their Meet-Cute: Lucas is looking at his phone when his nephew falls off a piece of playground equipment. Maggie comes over to see if the child is alright, then mocks Lucas’s Christmas sweater.

Star Power Casting: Kayden Magnusen, who plays Maggie’s preteen daughter, Ellen. Magnusen was Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s daughter in Skyscraper.

The 110% Award: None

Observations: The title of this movie leads you to believe it will be fun and silly and quirky. It’s not.

Did you know that Ashley Williams is the sister of Kimberly Williams-Paisley (Father of the Bride)? You do now!

Maggie is a lot. Lucas is supposed to come across as a curmudgeon – even his brother and sister-in-law say he can be prickly. But I didn’t find him prickly, just reserved. Maggie, on the other hand, will not let up. She is positively aggressive in her determination to cheer him up and get him in a holiday mood. And she will not take “no” for an answer on volunteering with the military kids. She already hit Lucas with a tree. Can’t she at least let him have some alone time?

I have a piece of advice for people in these movies: don’t eavesdrop. If you MUST eavesdrop, stick around for the whole conversation. You will avoid many a GREAT MISUNDERSTANDING if you follow this simple tip

Somehow Maggie gets it into her head that at the big party for all the military kids they not only need their parents to video call from all the far flung places in which they are serving, but the parents need to make gingerbread houses specific to these places. And this is “ordered” with four days notice. Okay, aside from the order itself being ridiculous, the gingerbread houses that they show are insanely complicated. A town near me has a gingerbread house competition every year and it’s a big deal, and NONE Of the structures entered as fancy as the gingerbread houses designed by military parents with four days notice in Never Kiss a Man in a Christmas Sweater. I call bull.

Also. Maggie and Lucas exchange gifts. He books her a trip to Paris – which seems impulsive considering she’s a single parent with a job who may have commitments. I hope that flight can be changed. Maggie buy Lucas an architecture book he remembers from childhood and has been trying to find for years. New York architect can’t find this book for years. Second grade teacher from a small town finds it and has it shipped in four days. Mm, okay. Sure.

Look at the snowball fight. Those snowballs are too perfect to have been engineered by human hands.

“Ugly Christmas sweater” tropes are getting on my nerves. The newly manufactured ones – which is all you see in this movie – are ugly in the same way that Sharknado is bad. Winkingly, and on purpose. The real joy of an ugly Christmas sweater comes at a thrift store when you find something your Christmas-obsessed aunt would have worn unironically in 1991.

Mostly, this movie is boring and unnecessary.

Entry #40: Love, Lights, Hanukkah! (2020)

Watched: December 13, 2020
Available on the Frndly App

Christina is the owner of an Italian restaurant founded by her deceased mother. As the holidays approach, Christina, who was adopted as a baby, receives DNA results and finds out that she’s 50% Jewish and has relatives nearby. In short order she’s found a sister, brother, and her mother – whose unplanned pregnancy is a secret she’s kept hidden from her other children. Christina’s newly found family invited her to participate in their Hanukkah celebrations, but at the same time she’s getting acquainted with their old friend, a food critic. Sparks fly. Lessons are learned. There’s love! There’s lights! There’s Hanukkah!

Our Romantic Couple: Christina (Mia Kirshner) and David (Ben Savage)

Their Meet-Cute: Christina goes to her “new” brother’s deli to meet him and her sister, and they introduce her to their friend, David. Christina remembers David as the food critic who called her restaurant’s lasagna “predictable”. They bicker, lightly.

Star Power Casting: Mia Kirshner was a regular on The L Word (original). Ben Savage, brother of Fred, became famous in his own right as the star of Boy Meets World. Christina’s biological mother is played by the great Marilu Henner (Taxi) who has made several Hallmark holiday movies.

The 110% Award: None

Observations: This is a much, much better movie than both Mistletoe and Menorahs and Hitched for the Holidays (another “Let’s learn about Hanukkah! movie). Yes, someone is discovering Hanukkah but they are not doing it to impress or fool anyone. Christina wants to understand her heritage, and learns by being welcomed into her birth mother’s family as they celebrate the holiday. It’s more human, less high concept.

I didn’t take a lot of notes during this movie because I was paying close attention to the interactions between characters. Adoption is an oft repeated theme in holiday movies – the reason for that is deserving of its own discussion – but it’s often handled horribly. Here is a movie that felt emotionally real in its handling of the trauma that inevitably attaches to adoption. Shock, grief, even some residual anger cloud the scene in which Ruth and Christina realize that they are mother and daughter. A later scene in which the two of them talk alone about Ruth’s decision to give up her child, and the upbringing Christina had with her beloved adoptive mother, is just beautifully acted. Sometimes the gap between the mediocrity of Hallmark staples like Candace Cameron Bure and real talents like Henner is drawn into sharp relief. But watching a movie like this also makes me lose patience with the inferior products. It’s hard to go back to CCB or Brooke D’Orsay after watching Kirshner and Henner.

Savage is a likeable leading man – not “Hallmark handsome”, but with an ordinary-guy charm that’s often missing. Kirshner is very good, too, as is Advah Soudack, who plays her sister, Becky.

This is the second Hanukkah-themed movie in which a person is told to use “more phlegm” to pronounce a Hebrew word correctly. It is also the second movie to feature the Feast of the Seven Fishes, and it features a crowd applauding a kiss TWICE. It is definitely not without cliches. The bigger problem is that the movie is still seeing Judaism from the perspective of a woman raised as a Christian. Well acted, emotionally resonant, yes. But Love, Lights, Hanukkah! Still has a “Christian gaze”. Hallmark can do better. I trust that eventually it will.

Running Totals

Holiday Job Losses: 7
Dead mothers: 27

Only 10 movies to go.

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