'The Man Who Invented Christmas'
There have been so many adaptations of ‘A Christmas Carol’ at this point that the Disney Channel must have a tough time deciding which version to air each year. (Note: They should always pick the one with the Muppets.) The last one involved motion capture and Jim Carrey in nearly every role, and the apathetic response was palpable. This latest edition actually has a clever concept, re-spinning the ‘Christmas Carol’ yarn with Charles Dickens at the center writing his story while learning the same lessons he teaches Scrooge. While it’s ultimately just a bit of Christmassy fluff, at least that fluff goes down smoothly.
Dan Stevens stars as a beloved “literary rock star” version of Charles Dickens, who returns to England after a successful tour of the U.S. and promptly cranks out three flops. Debts are rising and he needs to conjure up a bestseller fast. Fortunately, he has a cracking idea for a Christmas story. Unfortunately, he only has six weeks to write it. On top of that, his father (Jonathan Pryce) shows up unannounced, creating turbulence in his home. His wife (Ger Ryan) is pregnant, adding yet another youngster to his crowded horde. His contemporaries view his past success with contempt. His house is under constant expensive renovations. His publishers have no interest in financing a book about Christmas. He’s screwed. However, he has a vision of a crusty old man named Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) one night, and every subsequent night he meets that exploitative capitalist jerk for increasingly wild visions of past, present and future that just might inspire something special.
On the one hand, ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’ is a bit of overblown sentimentalism that tries too hard with too little. Jokey asides in which Dickens meets characters with names like Copperfield and takes a second to register the name are a bit too on-the-nose. A tragic backstory about Dickens’ impoverished past explains just a little bit too much about his work to be credible. Director Bharat Nalluri and screenwriter Susan Coyne endlessly pull on heartstrings as hard and as shamelessly as they can. No cliché of inspirational bio-pics or ‘Christmas Carol’ revivals is left on the table. The movie plays as a mish-mash of almost every conceivable form of middlebrow emotional manipulation in ways that will leave viewers feeling battered and exhausted.
At the same time, the film is also a charmer. The cast, from Dan Stevens’ slapstick dandy with a heart of gold down to Christopher Plummer’s amusingly snarling extended cameo as Scrooge, is remarkable. Long-time lovable British character actors pop up at every turn with good tidings and cheer to elevate the material. Nalluri’s spirited and colorful direction keeps things moving at all times with a gently cartoonish air to make it go down smoothly. Susan Coyne’s script nimbly touches on the themes (light and dark) of ‘A Christmas Carol’ without ever feeling like she’s cramming it down the audience’s throat. The whole thing just works. Gentle comedy, sweeping emotions, and eccentric performances dance around the Christmas-covered screen until your inner Scrooge gives up and lets a smile warm your face.
‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’ may not be the most elegant or original film on the planet, but within the hyper-specific genre of ‘A Christmas Carol’ movies, this is one of the best entries in years. It does everything this old tale is supposed to do and ties it into a pop history lesson on Charles Dickens’ life in charming ways that enrich the material. Perhaps this flick is unlikely to topple whichever rendition of ‘A Christmas Carol’ remains your favorite (‘Scrooged’ will always be mine), but it’s worth watching for those who still love the story. Essentially, this is a Christmasy spin on ‘Shakespeare in Love’, with all the aggressive crowd-pleasing tendencies that implies, for better or worse. Bah humbug, etc..