Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Noel

Posted by CinemaPsycho on November 30, 2004

Directed by Chazz Palminteri/Written by David Hubbard/starring Penelope Cruz, Susan Sarandon, Paul Walker, Alan Arkin, Robin Williams (uncredited)/Flexplay

A group of lonely New Yorkers tries to find happiness at Christmastime.

I actually saw this on TNT. I’m reviewing it here because it’s also currently playing theatrically in limited release, as well as being available to buy cheaply on DVD in a special “Flexplay” edition that self-destructs 48 hours after you open the case. So it’s like I’m writing three reviews at once!

This is a very unusual release pattern for a movie, to say the least, but it appears to be working to get attention for this relatively small film. When I first heard about this, my initial impression was, “why in the bloody hell would anyone pay to see a movie that they can watch for free on cable two weeks later?” But the catch is, TNT only showed it twice, on one night. So if you missed it…you missed it.

So the question becomes, is this movie worth paying to see if you missed it on cable? The short answer is, it’s an OK movie, but not really. However, if you need to find a relatively inoffensive, non-threatening, somewhat charming movie to watch with your Mom or maybe your grandparents over the holidays, you could do a lot worse.

Noel is one of those ensemble movies with various storylines that interconnect at different points. The three main stories involve a middle-aged woman (Sarandon) who takes care of her sick elderly mother; a cop (Walker) who’s insanely jealous and paranoid that his gorgeous fiancée (Cruz, looking sexy as HELL here) might be cheating on him; and a guy who wants to land in the hospital so he can attend their annual Christmas party. Throw in a couple of mysterious gentlemen (Arkin and Williams) with secrets to reveal, and the fun begins, supposedly.

The first two stories are the ones that work the best. Thankfully, they also take up the most screen time. Sarandon’s story turns out to be very sad, and she plays it just right, making us feel sympathy for her character while remaining likable and interesting. I’ve never been a huge Paul Walker fan by any means (I mean, have you seen any of the guy’s movies? Well, Joy Ride wasn’t bad, otherwise…), but I have to say, he’s surprisingly good here. He actually comes off like a human being who could conceivably walk the face of the Earth, so that’s an improvement. His frustrations with Cruz and Arkin (whose big reveal is actually quite funny and unexpected) seem believable and understandable, even when they lead to increasingly bizarre situations.

Unfortunately, Noel is still a mixed bag. The third story doesn’t really work at all – it’s rather forced and obvious, and it doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the movie. The level of acting isn’t really on par with the other stories either. There are occasional jarring gaps in logic and narrative coherence (I’m still wondering how Sarandon wound up in Cruz’s family’s apartment out of the blue – maybe I missed something, but how many people wander into total strangers’ apartments for no apparent reason? That was just odd). And some of the connections between the characters seem tenuous at best, without much thematic continuity to pull everything together.

Ultimately though, Noel’s big problem is its maudlin tone, which keeps it from being as uplifting as it apparently wants to be. Imagine a Christmas movie as directed by Ingmar Bergman, and you’ll get some idea of how this movie plays. I’m not saying every holiday movie has to be wacky and fast-paced like Christmas with the Kranks or something (does anyone actually WANT to see that movie? Willingly?), but the solemn feel never seems to let up, even when the happy endings arrive. While we’re obviously supposed to feel that the characters’ lives have changed for the better, the way it all plays out is curiously unmoving. And don’t look for Williams to liven things up in his uncredited supporting role – his character is as somber as a priest delivering last rites. Then again, his usual comedic shtick would’ve been decidedly out of place here. But a little more humor wouldn’t have killed anybody.

In his directorial debut, Palminteri delivers a solid, workmanlike effort, even if the movie suffers a little from lack of visual flair. He obviously has developed some impressive showbiz connections in his acting career (how he convinced A-listers like Sarandon and Williams, plus up-and-comers like Cruz and Walker, to appear in this low-budget, unassuming little movie is puzzling), but I’m afraid the result of his effort is just a step above your average Lifetime movie. In fact, if Noel were just a TV-movie, I’d consider it slightly above average, and not a horrible way to kill a couple of hours. As a feature film, I’d call it an OK first effort, but not quite worth handing over your hard-earned cash to see.

(If you’re wondering about possible editing changes made in the TNT version that may not be representative of the theatrical or DVD releases, the movie is so devoid of anything that might be considered “offensive content” that I seriously doubt there was much editing done to it for basic cable. In fact, I noticed one use of the word “bullshit” that, surprisingly enough, was left in the TNT version, so it’s possible that there was no editing done to it whatsoever. Under normal circumstances, I probably wouldn’t review a movie based on an edited TV version, but considering the movie’s unusual release pattern, I thought it was worth making an exception.)

**1/2 (2 1/2 stars) 11/30/04

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