Christmas films have
certainly changed over the years. The Bing Crosby fireside songs, the
religious and spiritual lessons, the peace on Earth and goodwill towards all
mankind; all that seems quaintly foreign now. Today, the holiday is
most often the butt of mean-spirited jokes; something to be survived, not to
be enjoyed. This year alone the holiday season was made just a
back-story to the dumb comedy moves of Surviving Christmas and the
upcoming, not much better looking Christmas With the Kranks, which is all
about trying to ignore the yuletide.
Think about it, if It's A
Wonderful Life was made today, Jimmy Stewart would just jump off of the
bridge and Clarence still wouldn't have his wings. Either that or ZuZu
would be pissed off because she didn't get the doll she wanted and grow up
needing therapy due to the slight.
moral of It's A Wonderful Life was that no man was poor as long as he had friends.
The new film Noel, on the other hand, looks at the Christmas stories
of the people who do not have friends.
This is actually the germ of a fantastic
idea for a film. They say that the suicide rate multiplies around the
holidays. There are many people walking around the crowded streets,
seeing the lights and hearing the carols, who know that they are watching
from the outside. Christmas isn't just large families sitting around
the tree and exchanging gifts. For some people, it is just a reminder
that they don't have a large family, a tree and lots of presents.
Sometimes their stories are even more interesting than the traditional ones.
allows us to
experience the yarns of five of these loners as they walk the snow-covered
streets of Manhattan. Susan Sarandon plays Rose, an aging divorcée
whose entire life revolves around going to her job in a publishing house and
then spending most of her time at the hospital caring for her mother who is
in the final stages of Alzheimer's. She hasn't dated since her husband
left her years before, and when a younger co-worker talks her into going out with an
office lothario she realizes how far out of the dating scene she is.
Then she meets a nice, quiet but mysterious man (an uncredited Robin Williams) who is
visiting the dying old man across the hall from her mother. Noel
Jules (Marcus Thomas) is a former orphan in
his twenties whose best memory was of being in the hospital on Christmas Eve
when he was only fourteen. Therefore, he decides to spend the night at the
hospital's Christmas party, even if it means that he has to be injured to
Nina (Penelope Cruz) is a
beautiful office worker who is getting married in a week, but decides to
leave her fiancé because he is pathologically jealous. He is Mike, a
cop who can't seem to control his temper and his insecurity. He
finally gets a sense of perspective when he finds he has certain
similarities with an older (and apparently unhinged) diner waiter named Artie (Alan Arkin) who is
convinced that Mike is the reincarnation of his late wife.
The five people's lives
intersect, sometimes in natural ways (Mike eats in Artie's restaurant, or he
meets Jules in the hospital waiting room) and occasionally in unlikely ways
(Rose gets swept into a family celebration with Nina's clan when she
decides to sneak a peek into the boisterous house party.).
I can't quite say that
Noel is completely successful in its attempt to tell the heartwarming
sagas of the forgotten people, but it is nice that the filmmakers at least
try. Perhaps the problem is that these people don't seem to be merely
lonely. At least two of these characters appear to be crazy (Arkin and
Thomas) and even the sanest person here comes dangerously close to committing
suicide. This attempt to jump into a river is only stopped by the
appearance of a passerby who should not be there, in a scene obviously meant
to be strongly reminiscent of It's A Wonderful Life. This leads
to a "Christmas Miracle" which is both just a tiny bit too predictable and a
tiny bit too unbelievable.
That's okay, though.
Imperfect though it may be, I have to admit to feeling a certain amount of
affection for Noel. Sure, the film is more than a bit
sappy and trying just a little too hard. However, that is just like
the lives it chronicles. The film has a sad, quirky quality and a desperate
need to please that makes it almost impossible to totally dislike. (11/04)
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Posted: November 15, 2004.