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Put a Jingle on That: Why the Worst People Make the Best Christmas Movie Heroes

Sketchy characters suffer few consequences if they can demonstrate holiday panache.

By Shannon Rupp 13 Dec 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor. Find her previous Tyee pieces here.

Why is it that the Christmas movies featuring the worst people are the ones that delight us the most?

I'm not talking about Scrooge and the Grinch who are reformed by the Christmas spirit. Or in Scrooge's case, fear of a hellish afterlife. I'm talking about the contemporary feel-good flick that features sketchy characters doing dodgy things and suffering no consequences at all because they deck the halls. Or so these films imply.

They often become classics despite the protests of film critics because they give us what we really want during the dark and cold solstice. Warm and fuzzy feelings that no matter how awful we may be, it will all end well as long as we add sleigh bells. (And possibly rum.)

If you pause to think about it, it's hard to believe a film like Love Actually was made as a Christmas feel-good feature since almost every character in it is smarmy. Guys who hit on their employees. Porn actors. Adulterers. That guy trying to make time with his best friend's new bride.

Somehow the magic of Christmas protects them from the consequences of their morally dubious habits. And who among us doesn't want to sign up for that?

Although it's also true Love Actually took a beating last year when its 10th anniversary attracted smarty-boots critics who pointed out, rightly, that by every measure of a good film this one is crap. They're not wrong; but they're missing the point.

I caught Love Actually when it premiered and it made me think director Richard Curtis might be a genius: he knows just how to push the buttons of a Christmas-ready audience. He's the guy who had a sleeper hit with Four Weddings and a Funeral and then treated us to variations on the theme, often featuring celebrity john, Hugh Grant. He's in Love Actually, along with more than a dozen famous actors. Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Laura Linney, Keira Knightly, that guy who plays Rick in The Walking Dead...

Or as the delightful people at Honest Trailers put it, "All these people you liked better in other things." They're not wrong, either. But again: missing the point.

Here's the thing: Love Actually feels good. It astounds me every time I watch it, and I've watched it regularly over the last 11 years, partly because I'm trying to figure how and why a flick this bad works so well. (That's how critics justify these time-wasters. There's no excuse for the eggnog that comes-with.)

Star turns from Nighy and Thompson

I could tell you that it's Bill Nighy's hilarious over-the-top performance as an aging rock star with no illusions, and no internal censor, that makes the whole 135 minutes worthwhile. Or I could point to Emma Thompson's touching turn as the saint-like wife of the cheating husband, Alan Rickman.

But I think the film's secret is in its self-awareness about what Christmas is, who we are, and what we're all doing over the next few weeks.

The interrelated stories kick off with Nighy's cynical rocker in the studio, trying to jumpstart his career by recording a cheesy Christmas hit. He's like the film's Greek chorus, pointing out all the uncomfortable truths beneath the shiny paper.

"This is shit isn't it?" Nighy asks, of the cover he's doing of the 1967 Troggs' hit, "Love is All Around." They've reinvented it as "Christmas is All Around."

"Yep, solid gold shit, maestro," his gleeful manager replies.

He could be describing Love Actually, which took in $247 million and earned a permanent place on those Top 10 Christmas movie lists. Despite it being nothing but a rapid succession of cliché rom-com scenes set to just the sort of Christmas pop songs Nighy's rocker is peddling.

I could blame declining social standards for the 2003 film, but then I'd have to ignore another great festive film with an ethically challenged heroine, the 1945 Barbara Stanwyck classic, Christmas in Connecticut. It celebrates the perfect holiday with duplicity, lies, and a journalist who makes things up for fun and profit.

Stanwyck plays a columnist who supposedly has Martha Stewart tendencies. She pens a cooking advice column for a national magazine, in which she charms readers with stories of her beautifully decorated Connecticut farmhouse where she cares for her husband and a baby while whipping up meals like a chef.

Columnist a fabulist

The problem is that she's one of those creative non-fiction writers who put a little too much emphasis on the creative. Her uncle is the chef supplying foodie advice since she can't cook, and the picturesque house is owned by a pompous architect she's dating, but is reluctant to marry.

She's an entertaining fabulist (and at least she's not a plagiarist) so the fraud is going fine until the publisher invites himself for a perfect Christmas dinner with her imaginary family. Sensing a publicity opportunity, he also invites a returning war hero.

Fearing for her job and her newly acquired mink coat -- apparently journos were paid better in the day -- Stanwyck and her editor cook up a scheme to borrow the boyfriend's house and get him to play the imaginary husband. He agrees, but only if she really marries him. She agrees. They borrow babies. Screwball hijinks ensue.

It's a treat. There's a great cast of character actors and the charming set includes a fantasy East Coast farmhouse, a nine-foot tree, and decorative fake snow in which she and the war hero take a sleigh ride.

I first saw this film during my formative years, and the flaws didn't occur to me until I was well into my 20s and a friend pointed them out.

"So let me get this straight," he began. "She's a journalist who makes things up and will go to such lengths to further her lies that she will actually marry a man she doesn't like to maintain the illusions. Further, she'll flirt with another man -- which, just let me say is a kind of a lie when you're engaged to someone else -- under the nose of the fiancé, all while putting off the wedding with a series of increasingly outrageous fibs.

"What about this, exactly, do you find so charming?" he finished.

Well, when you put it like that it sounds bad. But, like Love Actually, it has a warm Christmas-y feeling. And a happy ending. The publisher recognizes that good writers are valuable (it's a fantasy) and the holiday romp is such fun that he sees the humour of it all. No one gets fired, except the rich pompous architect/fiancé, and he's a pill.

Again, I think the film is an enduring favourite because it tells us that celebrating Christmas in style is enough to redeem even the worst of us.

Gremlins still charms

Which is probably why Gremlins (1984), which hits a similar note, is still charming us on its 30th anniversary. Like the other classics, it kicks off when a supposedly sympathetic character does something vaguely criminal. A guy steals the mysterious koala-like Gizmo from a curios shop as a gift for his son. They're careless about caring for the mystical magwai and before you know it, gremlins invade the small town.

Children love the puppet carnage. It's weirdly satisfying for adults too, since the gremlins are like everyone's obnoxious holiday houseguests: drinking, smoking and partying as they wreck the place. When the mom stuffs one invader into a blender on high, don't we all cheer and wish we could do that to Uncle Harold?

Trivia junkies love playing spot-the-movie as the monsters act out famous films, but the most quoted scene is the one in which a young Phoebe Cates explains why she hates Christmas. She's bitter because her father, who was apparently a Darwin Awards candidate, died one Christmas Eve after he tried to climb down the chimney in a Santa suit.

As Oscar Wilde said of such a melodramatic demise, "One would have to have a heart of stone to hear of the death of Little Nell without laughing."

I give nothing away when I say that eventually the demons are defeated, the young lovers are united, and the adorable Gizmo is returned to his rightful home. There are no real consequences: it's Christmas.

And as we string lights on the roof and put antlers on the cat, isn't that what we all want to believe?  [Tyee]

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