By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Nov 06, 2019 at 7:26 PM

On Nov. 9, 2017, during an OnMilwaukee editorial meeting, culture editor Matt Mueller brought up the craze of Hallmark Christmas movies. It was a decision he would come to immediately regret, as he was quickly punished assigned to watch a new Hallmark movie a week during the holiday season and write about his discoveries and loss of dignity. 

Two years later, having learned absolutely nothing, he made the mistake all over again. 

These are the never-ending chronicles of Matt's Hallmark Holiday Hell.

"Christmas Wishes & Mistletoe Kisses"

This would normally be the part where I complain about how the Hallmark Christmas movies are starting way too early. I mean, I still have half a bowl of leftover Halloween candy to work through (please applaud my restraint) and my costume is just mostly in shambles, as opposed to complete shambles. And as always: WHERE IS THE RESPECT FOR THANKSGIVING!?

But you know what? We've already had not one but two notable snowfalls. I've already almost turned my tailbone into powder by slipping on black ice, and I've already cursed out people on the freeway for driving 21 miles per hour because there was snow in the forecast the day before. The Christmas season has jumped the gun across the board this year, so have at it, Hallmark. I give you permission to pretend Thanksgiving doesn't exist this year – especially because this first movie I watched ... wasn't all that bad? EVEN THE SACCHARINE SWEETNESS AND CLICHES ARE STARTING TO INFECT ME EARLIER THAN USUAL THIS YEAR! GAHH! (*runs screaming into the distance, never to be seen again*)

Who stars?

Jill Wagner plays our festive interior designer Abbey. Wagner's become a familiar face for Hallmark fans – but for me, she will always be the sideline reporter for the greatest television show to ever grace airwaves, the highest peak of Peak TV and the apex of the art: "Wipeout," the ABC game show about people racing through obstacle courses and getting slapped in the face with giant balls and concussing themselves on plastic platforms before getting dropping into a mysterious muddy murk. Did "Breaking Bad" or "Mad Men" have people snapping their spines trying to cross a bridge of big bouncy balls? I THINK NOT.

I should clarify: It's a former ABC game show, canceled in 2014. We truly live in the darkest timeline.

In the arms of the angel ... 

Fly awaaaaay from here ...

From this cold, dark network television schedule ...

And the endlessness that you fear ... 

That final GIF involves a Santa Claus – so yes, Hallmark Channel, I expect "Wipeout" to be added to the Countdown to Christmas schedule next year.

Winding up under the holiday herb with Jill Wagner in "Christmas Wishes & Mistletoe Kisses" is Matthew Davis, who ... wait, where do I recognize him from? Why do I have this strange compulsion to punch him in the face?

It's Warner Huntington III, the jagoff ex-boyfriend from "Legally Blonde!" You monster; YOU BROKE THE HEART OF AMERICA'S SWEETHEART! You've got yourself an uphill climb with making this romance work, Hallmark.

Jokes aside – OK, just temporarily – I kinda feel bad for Davis. How many times do you think he auditioned for the lead in some new movie only for the casting director to say, "Oh no, that was great – but could we also have you quick read for Trent McDouchecanoe III, the rich frat house leader who at the end of the movie dies alone, sad and hated by everyone?" Gotta be a hard way to live, people constantly telling you how perfectly punchable your face and smile are. I imagine he and fellow '00s go-to bro turned Hallmark star Travis Van Winkle go out drinking a lot and reflect back on their early careers ... and then just keep drinking. 

Holly jolly or holy hell?

For a column titled "Matt's Hallmark Holiday Hell," I must say that the first movie of the season was not that hellish! (Put that pull quote on the poster!) Maybe more like purgatory or limbo or the first circle of hell where you get merely tickled on the foot with a feather – but that's not too bad!

A lot of the credit must go to Wagner, who in the pantheon of Hallmark heroines is possibly in my top five. She checks all the standard smiley Hallmark boxes, but there's a real sense of fire and pep to her performance – at least certainly here. Most Hallmark comedy is so soft-pedaled and squishily delivered that the jokes barely register as attempts at humor, but Wagner offers some actual bite and zip to the otherwise mild banter, and when she goes on a rant to our Christmas cynic and his all-business assistant, some actual anger and feeling cuts through. With most Hallmark movies, there's exclusively a sweet but suffocating cheerfulness; despite dead relatives or divorce or heartbreak, no one ever seems to feel actually bad or upset. But Abby actually has something resembling a range of emotions – and thanks to that, it feels like there's an actual human heartbeat in what usually is just a pleasant, oxygen-free snowglobe of festive "feeling." 

Wow, that's a lot of positive commentary; ON TO THE SASSINESS! Because this is, after all, still a Hallmark Christmas movie, with all of the diabetes-inducing sweetness you'd expect – plus a little bit of bitterness that you absolutely wouldn't.

Wagner is Abbey, a former interior designer who now works at a retirement home, run by Donna Mills. She's so impressed by Abbey's ability to put a ribbon on the front of a Christmas tree that she recommends her for a big design job: decorating their big but empty family estate for an upcoming party on Christmas Eve. Interested in getting back into her calling, Abbey decides to take an interview – but not before she gets absolutely blindside blocked by some big-city guy in a rush, but not too much of a rush to announce to Abbey that if there's one thing he hates, it's Christmas and joy and believing in magic and DEFINITELY Christmas tree lighting ceremonies. I get it, Big City Business Guy; I like to introduce myself to new people by proclaiming my hatred of puppies and rainbows. In related news, I have no friends. Abby, unsurprisingly, is unimpressed by this handsome if grinch-like stranger. I SURE HOPE THEY DON'T HAPPEN TO MEET AGAIN!

Oh would you look at that – he's Donna Mills' son, Nick Sinclair (Matthew Davis) who's in charge of this big holiday party at the family estate. And even though he seems unconvinced by Abbey's interview pitch and practically wretches at hearing the word "Christmas," he gives her the gig. I know these two are going to end up falling in love, but I don't want it. Maybe it's because she has another option in Dr. Mike Handsome, the perfectly stubbled son of one of her retirement home regulars who, when he's not working at a children's hospital, models for LL Bean and saves puppies from house fires while shirtless. Maybe it's because, as charming and genuinely chipper Wagner may be, their romance seems pretty devoid of chemistry. Or maybe I just don't trust this guy because I keep expecting him to smilingly breakup with Abbey as soon as he gets into Harvard law school. WHO GETS RESERVATIONS AT A BOUGEY RESTAURANT TO BREAK UP WITH SOMEBODY, WARNER!?

A part of it is definitely Nick's assistant, Kate, who is the closest thing the movie has to a villain – and is WAAY to mean for a Hallmark movie. Staring at her phone during an interview and being generally unfestive? Standard issue grumpy grinch-ness. Condescending to Abbey for wearing functional clothes for moving furniture and designing an entire mansion? OK, that's just being a jerk. Goading her into quitting the job because she had the GALL to put Christmas decorations? OK, you're too much, Kate. I'm all for business-minded and ambitious female characters in my Hallmark movies, but I need you to get on everyone else's level here – and that level is swimming is marshmallowy holiday schmaltz. Also: If you don't want Christmas decorations at your party, maybe don't host it on Christmas Eve? "So you're just gonna put Christmas trees up for our Christmas party held on Christmas to celebrate Christmas with a Christmas party?" (*smashes wine glass against Abbey's head*)

I don't know what she's so mean and bitter about anyways; she's definitely going to fall in love with Dr. McStubbleface-Greatwithkids by the end while Abbey's stuck with Elle Woods' crappy ex-boyfriend. Plus – spoiler alert – she gets an awesome promotion. WHY DOES THE VILLAIN GET THE HAPPIER ENDING, HALLMARK!? 

Oh yeah, additional spoiler alert: Abbey and Nick fall in love. Nick, you see, walks in on Abbey ranting to her dad about how he and Kate are making her job impossible by being so cold and unhelpful, so he tries to change his ways and volunteers to come with on a furniture shopping trip.

Nick eventually becomes so infatuated, he starts getting jealous of Dr. Studly Chiseledjaw – even dive-bombing Abbey's date at a pretty bad-looking pop-up restaurant that looks like it was set up in a halfheartedly decorated abandoned gymnasium. Luckily, the date was going really poorly, as Studly turns out to be boring and tedious conversation. Unluckily, still sure that the Sinclair company has an HR department – and Abbey is Nick's employee. (I think the movie tries to say that she's technically his mom's employee – not sure that looks better!)  

No matter the case, the two continue to hang out and fall in love, with Nick giving Abbey a ride on a snowy day because Abbey incredibly doesn't have a snowscraper. How do you live in a Christmas-obsessed town and not own a scraper?! Actually, I shouldn't judge; I spend the past winter using a plastic clothing hanger as my car scraper because I was too lazy to dig around my backseat and find it. Fun fact: A hanger actually works pretty well! Can't say this article wasn't informative!

Unfortunately, thanks to a big business deal falling through while he was hanging with Abbey, Nick freaks out about losing focus on his company and becomes chilly toward Abbey. Thank you, Hallmark movie, because I still don't really think these two leads share that much of a spark. But it deserves an even bigger thank you because "Christmas Wishes & Mistletoe Kisses" impressively handles this drama with a decent amount of real human behavior and a lack of melodrama, just having the two calmly talk about their issues and politely going their separate ways, him focusing back on Sinclair and Abbey working on the design job. Normally, the big breakup comes as a result of some stupid misunderstanding – I was waiting for Dr. Perfection to ruin everything, but nope; nice restraint, Hallmark – but this film skips that. 

Or ... I thought it did. Unfortunately, the final act decides to bust out one of those horrible rom-com contrived misunderstandings that I JUST COMPLIMENTED IT FOR AVOIDING, as Kate tells the party's extremely British party planner that she has an exciting proposal for Nick – and for some reason, Benedict Snoggleshampton figures that it must be a marriage proposal. Alfred Manchestercrumpets then does his best impression of a crappy UK gossip rag and passes along the "news" of the "marriage proposal" to Abbey, who leaves the party in a huff because of her newly broken heart. But of course the proposal was actually just Kate asking for a promotion, so THANKS A LOT, PIERS MORGAN JR!

Thankfully, the screenwriter seems as disinterested in this late-game drama as me, because when Nick reconnects with Abbey, they don't even mention anything involving a proposal and almost immediately get back together, finally sealing their romance with a snowy kiss. And even though I still think these two spark like trying to rub two sticks to make a fire in outer space, Wagner's a charming enough actress that I'm happy that her character's happy, and the beat that brings the two back together – Abbey incorporating Nick's childhood stories and memories into her interior design – is effectively warm and sweet. 

In the end, you could do far worse than "Christmas Wishes & Mistletoe Kisses"; the lead actress is better than most, the script is filled with predictable Hallmark cliches but at least avoids the worst of them and other than Kate's needless rude behavior, the slowly-defrosting romance serves up the heartwarming, mindless, artery-choking sweetness you want – even if the male love interest seems more convincing with the distant jerkishness (that's a word, right?) than the cutesy preciousness the love story requires. But you could also do better. Then again, if you wanted better, you probably wouldn't be watching the Hallmark Channel. You want coziness – and this movie is pretty pleasantly cozy.

Though I wouldn't get too cozy, Abby. I'm still not convinced Nick won't dump you in order to date a Vanderbilt. 

Verdict: Christmas wishes, mistletoe kisses ... and, in this movie's case, near misses

Drinking game drunken-ness score

Not that I needed any more excuses to drink heavily while watching Hallmark holiday movies, but thanks to Wide Open Eats, I found this Hallmark drinking game created three winters ago by human saint Brittany Graves and posted on Facebook. So let's go through the checklist and see how crushed we can get off Christmas cliches!

(PHOTO: Brittany Graves Facebook)

  • Reference to a dead relative? Thanks to Nick's dead dad, we get to start with a drink! Pour one out for Nick's dead ... AND THEN POUR ONE INTO YOUR MOUTH!
  • Christmas-y main character name? For a character I didn't particular like, Nick is turning into the gift who keeps on giving. First he's got a dead relative, and now he's got the token Christmas name. Thanks Nick – and THANK YOU, TASTY, MIND-ERASING ALCOHOL!
  • Fake Christmas tree disses? Thanks to Kate and the pre-degrinchified Nick, there's quite a few insults packed into "Christmas Wishes & Mistletoe Kisses" ... but none of them involving fake Christmas trees. DANG IT, NICK; THAT'S WHAT I GET FOR TRUSTING YOU!
  • Newcomer in old-timey tradition? While an antique shop definitely counts as pretty much the definition of old-timey, I wouldn't call it a tradition – as much as my thirsty mouth wishes I could. KEEP NOT DRINKING!
  • Hot chocolate? Before Abbey and Nick start perusing their antique store, they first stop at ... the in-house hot chocolate stand. Hold on a holly jolly second: Is that a thing? Do home decor shops just have drink stands just waiting on standby? Making really good hot chocolate and not just dumping a packet of Swiss Miss into some boiled water? I've been dodging trips to Crate & Barrel for years AND I COULD'VE BEEN SUCKING DOWN DELICIOUS HOT COCOA THIS WHOLE TIME!? This movie is leaving me with so many questions – and so little alcohol because DRIIIIINK!
  • Near-miss kiss? There's not one, not two, but THREE near-miss kisses – though admittedly none of them that close to actually happening. Abbey and Nick very professionally leave a responsible amount of room for Jesus, even when they're caught under the mistletoe. Three cheers for not violating HR policies! AND THREE CHEERS FOR THREE MORE DRINKS DOWN MY THROAT!
  • Product placement? Unless that hot chocolate stand is for rent, stop drinking. PUT THE GLASS DOWN!
  • Snowball fight or ice skating? This plot would seemingly be prime for a scene where Abbey and Nick get into an adorable snowball fight in the midst of their fall into romance, only to accidentally hit Kate with a missed throw for maximum comedy. But somehow that never happens. A real missed opportunity; Hallmark, pay me to help write your scripts. I promise I won't just write "Wipeout" into everything. In the meantime, CONTINUE BEING PARCHED!
  • Ugly sweater or tie? As UTTERLY AGHAST Kate may be about Abbey's galling wardrobe choice of a comfortable turtleneck and a fashionable red North Face vest, that doesn't count as an ugly sweater or tie. MAINTAIN SOBRIETY!
  • Big city person in small town? We don't just have a big city person in a small town; we have an entire big city business in a small town! I say that means I get to drink an entire bottle of something. DOWN THE HATCH!
  • Caroling, tree farming or cookie baking? Oh boy. OK. So that was a mistake. I should probably slow my (*little belch*) roll. Luckily for me, there's no tree farming in this movie. Unluckily for me – and especially my liver – there's a whole bunch of caroling and, if not cookie baking, cookie decorating with Abbey, her adorable moppet kid and Dr. Handsome. SooO TwO MOaR DRINnkS!
  • Mistletoe? Uh, they didn't call it "Christmas Wishes & Mistletoe Kisses" for nothing, as the two wind up under the mistletoe at the antique shop. The weird part, though? Some random stranger pops out to go "OOH, YOU'RE UNDER THE MISTLETOE!" Excuse me, stranger, but how do you know that these two are not brother and sister? Or that they're two working professionals trying to keep things that way? You creep me out, Random Stranger. Stop trying to force people you don't know into smooching. But feel free to POUR ME AN(*hiccups*)OTHER DRIIII(*hiccups again*)IINK! (*giggles at nothing*)
  • Magic deal with Santa/angel? Unless you qualify me never punching Warner from "Legally Blonde" in the face during this movie as something magical, this is a nope. Thank the heavens. CEASE ALCOHOLISM!
  • Anytime time you hear "Jingle Bells"? For a long time, I thought this was going to be a nope. The top-hatted carolers from the beginning went with "Silent Night," and the movie opened with a (admittedly pretty ragged) rendition of "10 Days of Christmas." But then it was time for band tryouts, and of course one group went with "Jingle Bells." So DRINK – if mainly to wash this pretty grim version out of your ears and memory.
  • Snowed in? Nope, it's all just dainty snow flurries. The only blizzard you have to worry about is coming from Kate's vicious chilliness. CELEBRATE  SOBER NOVEMBER! (At least for these few seconds.)

Of course, there's no Lacey Chabert (she's off in Rome, apparently; lucky lady) or Candace Cameron Bure, so that means no celebratory shot for you. But the cynic is certainly filled with the Christmas spirit, so feel free to finish your drink ... then pour yourself a new drink and finish that one too, because it snows on Christmas. Or at least Christmas Eve, I believe. Close enough. 

In the end, it's a decent enough Hallmark movie – and, thanks to this drinking game, an even better way to get pretty hammered. And considering I'm currently looking at slushy gross snow in the first week of freaking November, with temperatures in the teens end route, I can't think of a better way to ring in the start of a winter season that's equally as drunk. 

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.