Once again, we’ve arrived at that most wonderful time of the year. Which means, as all around we begin to see candy canes, silver lanes, and toys sardined into store shelves, all while Mariah Carey’s yuletide megahit rains down, the seemingly unending deluge of Christmas flicks hitting myriad basic cable TV channels and streaming platforms has arrived. A major player in the once Hallmark-only market, it increasingly seems Netflix believes itself to be the prime seasonal attraction, confidently beginning its slate of Noel-themed films in mid-November, this year kicking things off with the confidently titled Best. Christmas. Ever! And indeed, Mary Lambert’s latest directorial effort, coming after 2021’s disappointing A Castle for Christmas, seems initially promising and for a while may easily trick viewers into believing that it might actually be the best holiday movie of the year.
With a brisk, rhythmic opening montage and a couple of compositional and narrative gimmicks that superficially resemble Wes Anderson’s visual style, Best. Christmas. Ever! introduces two distant, former college friends: Jackie (Brandy), who unlike many folks still believes in the cozy, old-fashioned tradition of sending out annual family newsletters, while Charlotte (Heather Graham), a discontent product engineer, skeptically believes her friend’s humblebragging about life and familial achievements reflect a reality too perfect to be true. Recalling any number of Christmas movies of its ilk, a familiar narrative kicks in after Charlotte’s young son, Grant (Wyatt Hunt), misreads his mother’s sarcastic comments about her “BFF’s” newsletter and sneaks Jackie’s address into GPS instead of his aunt’s, setting them on a course to arrive at a hospitable, dreamy destination, one that is predictably primed to provide new perspectives for the insecure, suspicious, and jealous Charlotte and her disregard for life’s simple pleasures.
At this point, after the Sanders finally arrive, end up snowbound there thanks to that old Christmas flick chestnut the blizzard, and endure the early interactions of their unexpected stay at the Jennings’ beautiful family manor — which makes the McCallisters’ Home Alone residence look more like a shack — Best. Christmas. Ever! still promises the potential to be a playful holiday flick beyond the usual holiday shenanigans. It even looks positioned to rise to the level of a naughty and nutty sex comedy — especially in details of how the film positions the relationship of Charlotte and her sanguine husband Rob (Jason Biggs) with that of Jackie and her more seductive hubby, Valentino (Matt Cedeño), the tension punctuated when it’s revealed that Rob and Jackie also used to date in the college. Unfortunately, such a setup requires genuine imagination, and thanks to a lazy script (co-written by Charles Shyer and Todd Calgi Gallicano), Best. Christmas. Ever! eventually moves from quaint to catastrophe.
Mainly divided between interior scenes at the Jennings’ and exteriors at the Hadley Falls town center (originally filmed in Utah), Best. Christmas. Ever! predictably never offers any true contextual tangibility more than the same recycled tropes peddled in any number of Hallmark or Lifetime productions. But that’s largely par for the course; the more fatal problem is it rarely succeeds in conveying even the minimum of the alluring holiday atmosphere that causes viewers to annually flock to such lightweight fare. Take, for instance, the film’s color palette, which mostly relies on a minimalist snow-white visual character rather than the more usual lavish design of greens, reds, and ornate decorations. It seems for a while that Lambert might be intentionally foregoing the usual holiday saturation for something more along the lines of a bewitching fairy tale, but there’s ultimately nothing in the narrative’s execution to support this. Instead, the film’s disjointed story and its slapdash assemblage — where a number of extraneous subplots, including the kids’ quest to prove the non-existence of Santa or a dollhouse incident where Charlotte ruins a surprise, are shoehorned in to fill the gaps of its barely-there primary arc — feels more like a series of YouTube sneak peeks cut together than a coherent film.
Best. Christmas. Ever! tries to compensate for its lack of narrative energy by utilizing an on-screen countdown to Christmas, but the obstacles Charlotte and Jackie face in order to rediscover their companionship, the meaning of sister/womanhood, and familial joy are engineered without even the faintest sense of a genuine challenge, madcap fun, or even syrupy-sweet emotion — they are just ostensibly melodramatic beats that vanish before they ever truly appear. And it all works against Lambert’s attempts at an ultra-campy climax, wherein the “magical” ending consists of Charlotte riding a flying sled tethered to a balloon; silly spectacle that fails to achieve its intended cornball appeal. Even the amiable presence of Graham is never enough to save the film from the disaster it becomes across its runtime. Of course, the trifling nature of modern-day, mass-produced Christmas flicks is nothing new, but those that succeed must do so on the strength of their joyous whimsy or saccharine escapism, neither of which are anywhere to be found in Lambert’s film. It’s still early in the season, but all viewers should want for Christmas is that Best. Christmas. Ever! won’t be the best holiday title on offer.
DIRECTOR: Mary Lambert; CAST: Heather Graham, Brandy Norwood, Jason Biggs, Matt Cedeno; DISTRIBUTOR: Netflix; IN THEATERS & STREAMING: November 16; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 20 min.