' ' Cinema Romantico: Christmas Waltz

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Christmas Waltz

In many ways, “Christmas Waltz” is no different than its myriad Hallmark brethren. All its sets, from homes to offices to dance studios, are oppressively strewn in Christmas lights, wreaths, hollies, garlands, etc., while scene transitions are marked by familiar second unit shots of New York at Christmastime. Yet even if parts of the plot involve the season, like the climactic dance taking place, as the title implies, on December 24th, what is most notable about Director/Writer Michael Damian’s film is how little Christmas is actually involved. No one says something like “Christmas is a time for miracles”, a Santa-like deus ex machina never swoops in and our ambitious, career-driven protagonist Avery (Lacey Chabert) does not need to let Christmas into her cold, cynical heart. If anything, “Christmas Waltz” does not treat that character description – ambitious, career driven – like typical Hallmark shorthand but sort of, kind of, a little bit, as much as a movie like this can, puts it under the microscope even if its diagnosis chickens out in the end. 

Sticking it to this endless genre’s customary structure, “Christmas Waltz” opens with Avery’s impending marriage dissolving. Mostly these would-be fiancés are vanilla zeroes but this one, who we will call Purple Suit Guy (Jeremy Guilbaut), is notably abhorrent. We call him Purple Suit Guy because he is introduced wearing a purple suit, not entirely unlike the abominable suit John Cusack is blackmailed into buying by Eugene Levy’s sales clerk in “Serendipity.” Cusack knew it looked bad; Purple Suit Guy doesn’t. What’s worse, Purple Suit Guy essentially breaks off their wedding upon accepting a job in Boston without consulting Avery and expects her to move no questions asked. If you wonder why she would agree to marry him in the first place, then, the moment is salvaged both by how Chabert plays it, like she’s realizing in the moment his god-awfulness, and the subsequent scene where her WASPy parents are less concerned with their daughter’s state of mind from the break-up then their daughter’s ongoing husband-less status. Damian even frames Avery with an empty chair looming next to her at the dining table, painting her as a burgeoning spinster. And her boss at the law firm (Fred Henderson), meanwhile, makes it clear simply in the way he speaks, a sort of waiting-to-be-dissatisfied grunt, that personal happiness always comes last. This is your life, Avery!

Avery’s change in latitude, change in attitude happens via the dance studio where she planned to take lessons with her fiancé and the dashing instructor, the appropriately named Roman Davidoff (Will Kemp). If Avery once had dreams of being a dancer, cruelly dismissed by her parents as mere childhood wishful thinking, Roman helps her reembrace those dreams as they simultaneously fall in love. This is Chabert and Kemp’s second pairing, after 2019 “Love, Romance, and Chocolate” which, yes, I have seen too, thank you very much, and it suggests Hallmark might we wise to foster recurring tandems rather than pairing off their regulars in different pairs. Chabert and Kemp feel natural and at ease, rendering their blossoming love not just believable but enjoyable as opposed to mandatory and tolerable. They work together so well, in fact, that when Purple Suit Guy makes his inevitable second-act reappearance, simply pledging newfound, if unbelievable, maturity to Avery is not enough; he also not-so-subtly threatens Roman. Seriously, it’s the closest, and it’s not even close, I’ve ever seen a Hallmark Holiday film come to suggesting violence. It’s not seen through, of course, just briefly gumming up the works to break Avery and Roman up so they can come back together but just that air of aggression is enough to briefly make it feel like “Christmas Waltz” is Dylan plugging in at Newport.

But if Avery tells off Purple Suit Guy once and for all and even convinces her parents to eschew the traditional Christmas dinner at Tavern on the Green (snobs!) to attends Roman’s Christmas Waltz instead, the circumstances of her job are less clear. So committed to Roman and dancing with him, she nearly forgets to close an important account just before the holidays, getting stern looks and words from her boss, seeming to suggest her professional heart has been led astray. Indeed, she helps Roman close a deal to open a second dance studio and through fate winds up dancing in the Christmas Waltz instead of watching, which is where the movie concludes, ending as the waltz ends too. It feels sudden, leaving the bigger question of her career hanging, almost as the movie has chosen to end by settling in for a long winter’s nap, conspicuously avoiding the most dreaded day on the Hallmark Holiday calendar: December 26th.

No comments: