There are Christmas movies that are immortal family classics enshrined in pop culture, and there are subversive Christmas movies that balance out the holiday sweetness with some tart cynicism, thoroughly adult humor, and explicit violence. And there are, of course, Christmas movies that aren’t marketed as being in the genre at all–but we like to welcome them in under the banner anyway.
Then there are the Christmas movies that pop up like mushrooms whenever you’re not looking. Suddenly, come November, they’re just there. They once seemed like the exclusive domain of television–especially the Hallmark Channel–but the advent of streaming means that they’re now even more ubiquitous than before. They have romances, cute animals, whimsically beautiful locations, sentimentality, happy endings, and an abundance of traditional holiday trappings. They’ve gradually gotten more diverse, at least within a very specific set of parameters–once almost exclusively straight and white, the generic Christmas movie now also welcomes characters of color and even gay or lesbian leads. (I even saw one that had an offhandedly bi character! He was the too-flamboyant boyfriend the heroine dumped for the ski lodge owner, sure, and equal parts antagonist and comedy relief, but he had some actual characterization, a smidgen of depth, and a performance crafted with obvious fondness. I’ll take it, frankly.) Pretty much everyone is still either rich or upper-middle-class–even the “poor” characters seemingly on the verge of bankruptcy and in need of a heartfelt neighborhood fundraiser have lavish homes Nancy Meyers would kill for–and generically good-looking, and they all still do their best to end up in small towns. People who are fond of stories often deemed formulaic usually point out that sonnets, too, have a very strict structure, which is true … but the structure of a generic Christmas movie is even more binding and the artistic highs are usually much lower.
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing good or enjoyable about them. The artistic highs of a cup of Swiss Miss hot chocolate and a grocery store cookie with colored sugar on it are also not that impressive, but I like to have them around the holidays anyway. Generic Christmas movies know that they’re dealing with a formula that has less to do with iambic pentameter and more to do with measuring out cups of sugar. These are following a recipe, and individual cooks can put slight tweaks on them or use better (or worse) quality ingredients.
I was won over by Mary Lambert’s (!) A Castle for Christmas, a Netflix original starring Brooke Shields and Cary Elwes. It has every attribute I mentioned above and follows every step of the recipe, and it makes a pretty good Christmas cookie of a movie. Elwes and Shields have believable, warm chemistry, and the movie benefits from actually giving their characters several months to get to know each other. They’re both a little older than is standard for the genre, and both of them are divorced–Shields’s character very freshly so–and their age and circumstances give their delicate love story both maturity and a little more vulnerability. The beautiful Scottish castle is even explicitly a costly pain in the ass to maintain, and the characters hustle up a little extra money by giving tours through it and running a gift shop. Money and success still swoop in eventually to save everything (including the likable feudalism), but these are still welcome little touches. There’s even a likable secondary romance. It wouldn’t convince anyone to start marathoning Netflix’s entire Christmas catalog–and in any case, that way lies madness–but it’s a very good example of what it is.
Do you have any favorite movies of this type? Especially appalling ones? Can you even stand to watch them at all, or do you find yourself aching to turn one off before it’s even reached the title card?