Wednesday, 22 November 2017

THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS
Starring Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow, Miriam Margolyes, Ger Ryan,
Ian McNiece, Bill Paterson, Donald Sumpter
Screenplay by Susan Coyne
Directed by Bharat Nalluri

















Reviewed by Patrick & Paul Gibbs

Before we get accused of being Scrooges, we need to make something clear: we live for the holiday season. We watch The Polar Express with our niece and nephew every year, and though they may be starting to reach that age where they won't hear the bell much longer, at 43, we are not even close to it. That thing rings for us like Quasimodo was trying to get our attention at dinner time on the Ponderosa. We are downright emotional about the 25th anniversary of The Muppet Christmas Carol. Paul''s wife had to put her foot down that no, the tree was not going up before Thanksgiving, and we are listening to the Bing Crosby and David Bowie duet even as we write this review. One year in the recent past we actually watched Santa Claus: The Movie three times (and one of them was after Christmas was over.). You know that Christmas episode of Family Ties, where Alex (Michael J. Fox)gets a job as a mall Santa and a little girl wishes only for her father to be home for and Alex is touched by the magic of the season and actually sees the real Mr. Claus fly over the Keaton house at the very end? Of course you don't! But the point is . . . it still kind of provokes a a tiny little tear from each of us (very tiny, but a tear nonetheless.).  We are silly, sentimental fools who go to sleep every 25th of December cheerfully running the words to Keep Christmas With You All Through The Year through our heads to drive away abject panic.

Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens)  proclaims that his "yuge"
new book is going to  Make Christmas Great Again.
(Image Courtesy Bleecker Street)
So . . .  the nonfiction book, The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits, by Lee Standiford, a historian, author and Director of the Creative Writing. The fictionalized screenplay adaptation was written by a drunken chimpanzee named Carl who thinks humans will believe anything if they see it in a movie. The story begins with  Dickens (Stevens), fresh off his biggest success, touring America, where he appears on The Ed Sullivan Show reading excepts from Oliver Twist in front of a crowd of screaming, swooning teenyboppers who are throwing bloomers and petticoats at the stage. If you can guess which parts of this paragraph we embellished for effect, you win an autographed copy if this review (not a printout, either: we'll come to your house and sign your computer monitor or mobile device.).

But in October 1843, Charles finds himself back in London and smarting from three flops in a row. Rejected by his publishers, he sets out to write and self-publish a book he hopes will keep his family afloat and revive his career. And it's not just any book: it's a Christmas book: it's one that will take the elite of British society to task for their callous attitude toward the wretched and destitute and restore the magical spirit of the season, through the story of a miserly, covetous old sinner named  . . . something. Scrooge! That's it, Scrooge! "Once you have the name, the rest of the character just falls into place" Dickens tells his housemaid, Tara, and sure enough, the old humbug Scrooge (Plummer) literally comes to life on screen, an anthropomorphic visage of Dickens' creative imagination . The film chronicles the six fever-pitched weeks in which Charles writes his magnum opus, as he argues with the visions is his head (including Scrooge), is constantly running into relative strangers who mug self consciously while just barely not looking at the camera and spout famous lines that he can paraphrase in the book, and has a Dickens of a time (ha!) coming up with an ending. Yes, that's right: according to this fanciful flick, the idea of having Jacob Marley and the three Ghosts of Christmas cause Scrooge to mend his ways and keep Christmas in his heart is not at all where he was intending to go with this. When Charles reads young Tara a passage indicating that Tiny Tim will die, she pleads with the author to have Scrooge intercede and save the boy.

"But he wouldn't do that. He's a miser."

"But he could change!"

"Oh, no, he's too far gone and set in his ways to change."

Ok, Chuckles . . . then where exactly the hell were you going with this? He makes it clear that he is writing an inspirational, feel good Christmas story, and yet he apparently intends for it to consist of an evil old man beset by Ghosts who relentlessly taunt him until he finally dies alone and miserable. So, basically, a horror novel mixed with an angry, scathing rant about how much the author despises British society, because he's the people's author, and he his has his finger on the pulse of what moves the masses. And speaking of fingers on pulses, at this point we were checking to make sure that we were, in fact, still alive and not writhing in bad movie hell.


After some unfortunate incidents, Dickens changes his already established 
established image of Scrooge to look like Christopher Plummer.
(Image Courtesy Bleecker Street)

As far as the performances are concerned, the only way to make this work would have been to shoot it in '80's as a comedy starring Hugh Laurie as Dickens, and with his wide eyed reactions, prancing about and frantic gesturing, Dan Stevens does his best to sometimes almost convince us that this is exactly what they have done. In fairness to widely loved Downtown Abbey star, the lion's share of the blame for this does not belong on his shoulders. It probably wasn't Stevens' choice to put himself in a horrid wig that remains so perfectly styled even when he wakes up in the morning that one starts to wonder if this shouldn't be called The Man Who Invented Auqanet, and he very likely wasn't going through the script asking "now, can he be a bit more of an insufferable prat in this scene?"

Director Bharat Nalluri (The Crow: Salvation, Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day) approaches the material with all of the subtlety of a community bedpan, and an approach to production design that says that his request for $1000,000 from the Town Council in order to impress Mr. Guffman was flatly denied (even though there is no swimming in the show.).

To say that we found it impossible to ever forget we were watching actors playing characters instead of being invested in real people on the screen is putting it far too mildly: with any movie, there is the inescapable fact that you are watching actors. But if every time they go off screen you get distracted by imagining them taking off their wigs, bitching about the sound technician being off on his cues and propping open the stage door to have a cigarette, that's a problem.

It must be said that the broad basics in regards to recorded history are accurate enough: Dickens was in a financial rut when he wrote A Christmas Carol, his father John did go to debtor's prison when Charles was boy, books were still being written by hand, etc. But the laughable portrayal of the creative process, made all the more insulting by the fact that it comes from people who have more or less participated in that process in some form themselves (not on this film of course, but they have other credits) and the ham fisted portrayal of Charles' hypocrisy in his shame toward his father and mistreatment of his wife and servants as he writes about how caring for the poor and how "mankind is my business!"manages to be over milked and completely underdeveloped at the same time.  And then there's the title issue: while A Christmas Carol absolutely did cause a significant rise in charitable donations during the holiday season and leave an indelible impact on that level and others, the movie would have you believe that Dickens was responsible for making Christmas popular again when the truth is that he was shrewdly using the surge in popularity of the festivities in England at the time as a way to sell a sure thing hit (while making a statement at the same time.). The movie doesn't give us any feel of what Christmas was like before the book and only very superficial references to changes that came because of it.

The total failure of this movie is the fact that Dickens himself never remotely plays as even half as real and three dimensional a human being as one his many wonderful characters (or for that matter, any created by A.A. Milne, Stan Lee, William Hanna and Joseph Barberra or any girl mentioned in a Billy Joel song.). The audience is insulted from beginning to end of this mess, and comes out with nothing to show for it.  But for us, there was an upside to this experience: after ten years of reviewing films for various outlets, our enjoyment and appreciation for truly bad cinema has definitely diminished. Despite the widely held belief that critics just love to hate, the truth is that when you are seeing at least one major release a week (and up to four or five in the busy seasons), when the lights go down, we want to be entertained just as much as the average moviegoer does, perhaps even more. no, we don't shell out the ticket price that you do, but we invest time, gas money and other expenses, and we have to spend a lot more time thinking about these films. It's hard to find the same joy in chuckling at some of the garbage that makes it to the big screen, because it is two hours you could have spent with loved ones, reading a book, taking a nap, or actually accomplishing something meaningful, and the novelty of  a night out in the theater simply isn't what it used to be. But The Man Who Invented Christmas was so head scratchingly stupid that it hit us like Three Ghosts; The Ghost of Bad Movies Past, which took us back our early 20's and the days of hanging with our childhood friend Aaron Jenson and deliberately seeking out schlock like Anaconda (Patrick literally fell out of his chair laughing at the image of Owen Wilson's shocked face poking out of the snake's skin.); The Ghost of Bad Movies Present, who pointed out the joy in bringing along our friend Brighton Sloan, who shares not only our love of Dickens but our biting sense of humor, to the screening so she could make snarky jokes throughout, and when Paul let out a zinger worthy of Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo, she laughed so hard her face started changed color at least twice; and the Ghost of Bad Movies Yet to Come, who reminded us that in 2018 we can look forward to Primal, a thriller starring Nicolas Cage and his hair plugs, with the following mouth watering plot description:

A big game hunter for zoos who has booked passage on a reek shipping freighter with a fresh haul of exotic and deadly animals from the Amazon, including  rare white Jaguar - along with a political assassin being extradited to the U.S. in secret. two days into the journey, the assassin escapes and releases the captive animals, throwing the ship into chaos.

Thanks, spirits! We are changed men. We  will honor bad cinema in our hearts, and try to keep it all the year. We will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within us. We will not shut out the lessons that they teach!  God Bless Us, Every One!


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