No, I’m not talking about the endless quasi-ironic arguments on social media discussing whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie (it is) or whether it’s the best Christmas movie (it isn’t, that trophy goes to Trading Places).
I’m talking about those holiday movies that look, sound, and smell like cheap-knock offs of the same stories we tell every holiday season, whether they star America’s retrograde sweetheart Tim Allen or that one girl from that one Disney show.
If you’ve turned on Netflix in the past several weeks, you’ve probably been bombarded with ads for Christmas movies you never knew you wanted or needed. You may wonder why they even exist. (Try typing “Christmas” into Nexflix’s search function, I dare you.)
This year, there's the confusingly named A Christmas Prince, a flawed piece of film that Keith Harris already wrote about here. I haven't fell for it and clicked "watch," so they started slapping my launch page with constant reminders that I really, really should watch Christmas Inheritance. The summary: “To inherit her father’s company, socialite Ellen must first visit his small hometown, where she learns the value of hard work and helping others.”
Why? Why! WHY?! Why do we need yet another rehash of this same old Christmas formula?
So I watched it.
Starring professional Young Reece Witherspoon impersonator Eliza Taylor and a paycheck-cashing Andie McDowell (man oh man, Hollywood shits on aging actresses), the story is exactly what you’d expect. Although we’re introduced to Ellen doing shots at a Very Important Holiday Party where all the millennials have been cordoned off into one part of a fancy ballroom. This ends in embarrassing camera phone pictures, and her father really wants to Teach Her A Lesson by sending her to A Small Town with no platinum cards To Learn About Humility.
And…I give up. SPOILERS: She learns something important. Also, she isn’t even that shitty a person, she’s actually really nice and cares about kids and just wants to be taken seriously when she’s not maxing out credit cards, doing shots, and falling into Christmas trees. It’s like some 50 year old movie producer’s tone-deaf idea of what millennials like: “They care a lot but they also like the Kardashians.”
(This is where people who don’t actually read the articles and skim the first couple lines can now stop and post comments about how stupid this is and how I think I’m just soooooo smart. Because you weren’t going to finish this anyway. Happy Holidays!)
I am a ridiculously sentimental person. I really am. I cry at the end of kids’ movies. I will never pass up a chance to listen to Anna Kendrick singing about getting back up again from the Trolls soundtrack. If I’m having a bad day I try to perk up by watching videos of happy puppies on YouTube. Conversely, if I’m having too good a day, I can bum myself out by watching videos of sad puppies on YouTube. The ending of Charlotte’s Web? Don’t even get me fucking started.
And I get holiday sentimentality. I love it. It’s maybe the most universal batch of core narratives in Western culture:
- The mean old Scrooge just needs to confront his demons and find his inner goodness, the bad old Grinch is going to learn what joy is from those who should have no joy.
- Sometimes a Red Ryder BB gun is more than just a Red Ryder BB gun.
- No matter how sad Charlie Brown gets Linus will say something profound.
- Jimmy Stewart’s life is totally worth living even if that asshole who ripped him off never gets his.
- If a bunch of European terrorists try to take over a tower, you can defeat them with wits and self-reliance, and the gross scummy cokehead business guy will still get what he deserves for being a gross scummy cokehead.
But in all those stories, even though the themes are so familiar, they do something that the endless rehash of pale imitations do not: Through sheer quality, they evoke a sense of permanence. You walk away from A Christmas Carol believing that Scrooge is a changed man. When Tiny Tim blesses everyone, it’s like a really sweet mic drop. When those singing Whos in Whoville make the Grinch’s heart grow three sizes, you don’t wonder if it’s going to shrink.
The problem with retelling these stories ad nauseum, in cheaply made direct-to-video movies and lousy TV specials, is that through endless recycling and watering down, that sense of permanence is lost. If Ellen “Christmas Inheritance” wasn’t that bad a person to begin with, what lesson has she really learned? That city folk aren’t as good as country folk? That letters are way cooler than phone calls? That Andie McDowell knows more than one verse of "Silent Night"? Or that once a year you have to be a little nicer to people so you can go back to half-assing through a life of Grey Goose and Jimmy Choos even if you did make out with that one handsome guy?
We shouldn’t be fooled by endless cynical cash-grabs that do no better than to remind us that for a short period of time that we’re supposed to feel sentimental, at least until next season. For a story to mean something, there have to be stakes. The great versions have them, the endless parade of lousy ones don’t.
Which leads us to Trading Places, a movie where two assholes with a sociopathic disregard for humanity attempt to strip the dignity from two very flawed individuals, only to have those individuals realize how little of what they thought was important actually was, overcome their differences, beat a rigged system, and bring those they care about to a better place.
That, my friends, is a Christmas movie.