' ' Cinema Romantico: Haul Out the Holly

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Haul Out the Holly

Generally, characters in Hallmark Channel Christmas movies have lost their secular faith in the secular season and need that secular faith restored. But Emily (Lacey Chabert), heroine of “Haul Out the Holly,” just doesn’t love Christmas enough. Recovering from a break-up by housesitting for her parents after they light out to the Sunshine State for the holidays, Emily plans to just hang out and watch Christmas movies, hardly the sign of a Scrooge, more someone needing a little me time. Just hanging out, though, is not sufficient for her folks’ Homeowners Association, managed by Jared (Wes Brown) whose black spectacles are less evocative of an endearingly nerdy Clark Kent type than a stickler for decorative holiday guidelines, citing her for insufficient Christmas lawn ornaments and such. This attitude mirrors the whole neighborhood, most of which appears to have no life outside of the HOA limits. Indeed, even if there is an unlikely love story tucked into Emily and Jared relationship, “Haul Out the Holly” is more about how Emily comes to accept and is accepted by the community. Well, perhaps “accepted by” is not the phrase we are looking for there. Because the boisterousness bordering on belligerence of the community coupled with the movie’s own aesthetic vigor causes that acceptance to ultimately feel more like assimilation.

Now don’t get wrong, I am not impugning that aesthetic vigor. Far from it. I have seen some Hallmark Christmas movies in my time, reader, oh, have I, and aesthetically speaking, Maclain Nelson’s “Haul Out the Holly” might be the best one of these I have ever watched. It’s not perfect, mind you. Chabert’s face-first pratfall into obviously fake snow could have been cut and the would-be comical slow-mo is as uninspired in its conception as its execution. But when I say “Haul Out the Holly” is the best I have watched, I don’t mean in the big flourishes but the little things, in the elemental rendering. These movies are plot-driven, and those plots tend to have screwball elements, but screwball elements need to be evoked with pace, crackle, and wit whereas most Countdown to Christmas entries tend to move with a polite assembly line pace. The screwball elements of “Haul Out the Holly,” on other hand, are accentuated by snappy editing (by Bryan Capri), surprisingly droll writing (by Andy Sandberg), and clever acting. And the clever acting is not just limited to Chabert. Melissa Peterman evokes a Kristen Johnson vibe that emerges as something all her own, a haughty neighbor knows best, while wily old vet Stephen Tobolowsky plays an HOA crackpot to the hilt, his turn summarized in a line about therapy spoken by Ellen Travolta where she epitomizes her impeccable comic timing throughout. Even Eliza Hayes Maher scores as Emily’s emergent best friend with nothing more than facial expressions suggesting how she’s learned to deal with living in an unrelenting winter wonderland.

If the best screwball comedies tend toward commentary tucked in amid all their hijinks, “Haul Out the Holly” manages for a while to play as a commentary on the oppressiveness of Christmas, evinced in characters like Tobolowsky’s, suggesting Clark Griswold seen through the looking glass the other way, a cuckoo Christmas militant. But even if the movie never entirely eschews its humorous tone, it still cannot prevent a gradual slide into more typical Hallmark sentimentality. The last half-hour reversal not being the standard-issue reappearance of an ex or some secret withheld bubbling to the surface but Emily failing to recruit Jared as the Christmas carnival Santa when he really wants the role for himself is pointedly not tied back to some childhood memory gone wrong, or some such, just an inadvertent allusion of Peter Pan complex, signaling a movie that’s become addled by its own eggnog. (I really wish Ellen Travolta would have received one line calling attention to this, just to let us know the filmmakers knew despite having to paint within Hallmark’s mandated lines.) Emily just rolls with this, like she gets it, which I suppose by the time the movie ends and the whole HOA shows up on her porch to sing carols, she does. Even the best holiday movie Hallmark has ever produced can’t help indoctrinating its character in the Christmas spirit.

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