By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Dec 08, 2020 at 6:56 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. 

Three 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.

"If I Only Had Christmas"

Clever. More than meets the eye. Good. These are not words that typically find their way into one of these Hallmark Holiday Hell columns unless the word "not" shows up carrying more weight than Prancer that one year when Rudolph and the rest of the reindeer all took off Christmas. (Boy, did he have words for his co-workers and the HR department the next day.)

But this is 2020. Mysterious silver monoliths keep popping up across the globe, probably leading to an alien invasion – or, more realistically, a Super Bowl ad for Doritos. A new Lifetime movie is starring Mario Lopez as a sexy Colonel Sanders. (No, really – not one part of that sentence is a lie.) And a new Hallmark holiday movie is clever, more than meets the eye and, yes, good. Dear reader, I was giddy at points watching this movie. GIDDY! And not because I'd drank enough boxed wine to build myself an igloo out of the empty boxes. I've got a feeling were not in Hallmark Holiday Hell anymore ... 

Who stars?

(*Trumpets blare*) ALL RISE FOR THE QUEEN OF HALLMARK! Indeed, it is time for one of the channel's two mightiest stars, Cameron Candace Bure Candace Candace Cameron Bure Cubed? Candace Cameron Bure! There it is! Three years of writing these pieces, and I still can't get her name's order right. It's like a Rubix Cube made of words.

Anyways, fun fact: Near the end of her "Full House" run, Bure starred alongside Carlton and Ashley Banks in a TV movie comedy called "Kidz in the Wood." According to Turner Classic Movies – which for some reason has a page dedicated to this – it also went by the name "Kiddy Slickers," which tells me that they didn't know which movie they wanted to spoof, but they definitely wanted to give any viewers secondhand embarrassment. "Kiddy Slickers" in particular sounds created by a person who is currently on a registry somewhere. 

As much as I'd like to keep talking about weird forgotten '90s pop culture, we're here to talk about modern day Cameron Cameron Cameron Candace Cameron Bure, who I actually really liked in this. Also, she's clearly trying to make adult headbands a trend, and while she certainly pulls off the look, YOU'RE TAKING FOCUS AWAY FROM THE COATS! You'll have to go to the sister channel, Hallmark Holidays & Headwear, to give the headbands the spotlight. If only there was a fellow Hallmark star you could bond with about trying to make something happen ... 

Her co-star is Warren Christie, most famous for playing the lead in the found footage horror movie "Apollo 18" about astronauts being menaced by sentient space rocks. And suddenly "Kidz in the Wood" doesn't sound so goofy ... 

Holly jolly or holy hell?

I've had to get a lot of my sass out of the way in the previous portion of this column because, well, I legitimately enjoyed this movie. It's truly clever in ways I wasn't expecting. It's charming, with two leads sparking nicely and a script giving them amusing things to say. It's the first Hallmark movie I've ever watched that you could say could be unpacked – nothing intense or in-depth or thought-provoking, but there's some fun creativity going on here that the brain can chew on. In the end, I smiled – and not because I'm losing my mind! (Editor's note: It's quite possible the author is losing his mind.)

The craziest part is that, for the first act or so, I was not on board with "If I Only Had Christmas."

We open on an aerial shot of a generic city – because how else will you know you're watching a Hallmark holiday movie unless you start with standard B-roll of some miscellaneous city. There we meet Darcy Gale (Bure Cameron Candace Tony! Toni! Tone! Candace Cameron Bure), a public relations employee for Gumm Public Relations. Because nothing says slick and savvy public communications like a company named Gumm. She's very excited for the day's office Christmas party, which is a sentence that only exists in Hallmark movies – but it turns out that's not what she's REALLY excited about. She's up for a big award – but thanks to a soulless text message, she finds out she lost. AND she's stuck at a work function! Rough day. 

Luckily, things are going even worse across the country for a big tech company, the subject of a scathing piece about how the company's mysterious new boss, William Austin, who inherited the place from his philanthropic father, is checked out. The company's VP Glenn (Warren Christie) is used to all communications being done in house and staying out of the spotlight, but due to pressure from his boss Winona West, he's having to look elsewhere to save their company's face. Truly nothing says Christmas and the holiday spirit like corporate public relations discourse! Did somebody just hook an IV of hot chocolate into my veins because MY HEART IS WARMED!

The only charming part about all of this? Darcy has a GREAT dog named Bobo who does tricks and has adorable puppy ears. I want to be his friend. Can the movie be about him?

Unfortunately, it's quite the opposite, as Darcy sends over a pitch to Glenn about bringing some attention to his company's education charity in the hopes of snagging him as a client, and while Glenn is deeply cynical about it, he invites her to New England anyways to see what she can do. AND SHE DOESN'T TAKE BOBO WITH! Zero stars. 

But then something strange happens: "If I Only Had Christmas" gets ... good?

It starts with a very basic Hallmark scene: the comedic meet-cute where the two stars butt heads, maybe with some mistaken identity for extra whimsy. And on paper, their meeting at a hotel bar is exactly that as Darcy talks with Glenn about how she's about to meet this grumpy business guy, without realizing she's talking to the very grumpy business guy she's complaining about. But ... it works? For one, it's written with wit and charisma; usually these scenes are ridiculous and strangely have the characters snipe each other (charming ... ?), but here the movie lets the two loosely flirt and play off each other while slowly revealing the mistaken identity punchline. Most importantly, Bure and Christie spark some pleasant chemistry, with the former giving Darcy some peppy screwball energy that's on just the right side of over-caffeinated.

Well how about that: A cliche Hallmark scene totally won me over. What a pleasant surprise! SURELY NO OTHER TWISTS WILL COME MY WAY!

The movie keeps up its winning streak as Glenn and Darcy continue to flirtily parry and have snappy banter over caprese salad or at the office for the company's educational charity, Emerald. There, she – along with Glenn, who's never dropped by before – meets the main players at the charity: chipper assistant Jackie, Riley the drama and arts teacher, and Bridget the education head. Darcy meets resistance at first – because the organization doesn't want to exploit their childrens' stories, aka a real reason, not for some Hallmark rationale like they hate Christmas and joy – but she soon wins over her three compatriots. With Darcy's encouragement, Jackie successfully pitches an idea for a charity Christmas maze event – as with everything in this movie, a more clever idea than the usual "what if the Christmas party was themed Christmas?!" – while Riley learns to overcome his nerves and not only speak on television about their important work but even perform at a fundraiser event.

Bridget is the hardest to crack of the trio, at one point giving Darcy a strangely legitimate conversation about how teachers and students need more than cute gestures. (Real issues? Discussed in a Hallmark movie!? WHERE AM I?!) But even Bridget warms up to Darcy and her ideas for making Emerald mean something to the company and make an impact in their communities. 

Most importantly, of course, is Glenn, who growingly beccomes charmed by Darcy's authentic spirit for the charity and for her colleagues that he starts to participate wholly in the preparations. When Santa drops out of the Christmas maze event – psht, never could trust that guy – Glenn finds a replacement. He even opens up to Darcy about his own not-so-wonderful past, sharing how he grew up as an at-risk kid himself who thankfully was adopted and got a good education, learning to love learning thanks to a genuinely sweet family tradition involving books on Christmas. And now he's rekindling his passion for working to help make sure today's kids, much like him, aren't left behind. This is nice! I like all of this; the two leads are charismatic – with assistance from some genuinely colorful side characters – and unlike most Hallmarks, there's some specificity here to the story that makes the story and romance feel better than the usual beige. 

But while they're putting together quite the production, Darcy Gale and company would still like to meet the mysterious man running this all so arm and arm they chippery make their way to Emerald where they're off to see OH MY GOD I JUST REALIZED THIS "THE WIZARD OF OZ"! Darcy Gale is Dorothy Gale! And she's from Kansas! Where she has a bustling family and there's an adorable dog whose name is just one letter away from Toto! And the mean boss lady's name is Winona WEST! As for her three friends, Riley is the cowardly lion needing courage, Bridget is the tin man needing a heart and Jackie Crow needs ... OK, just decaf coffee not a brain, but close enough! She gets a pair of red slippers at one point! Even Gumm is a shoutout to Judy Garland's real name, Frances Gumm. Still a bad name for a PR firm – but I like it now!

Was this movie advertised as a "Wizard of Oz" riff? Or am I just dumb for not noticing this all sooner? (Don't answer that ... but yeah, that's probably part of it.) No matter the case, it's not very often I get to say that a Hallmark movie surprised me ... but I was genuinely surprised and thrilled when I noticed the pieces of the story's tribute coming together, delighting in finding more entertaining references and plot homages along the way. Unlike "A Nashville Christmas Carol," "If I Only Had Christmas" really embraces the concept of its source material and works it into the script in clever ways, blunt and subtle (though they didn't work in dropping a house on someone; kinda hard to blend a house-assisted homicide into a Hallmark movie, I guess).

It all makes for a sweet holiday romance that also works as a little bit of a puzzle. An obvious, easy puzzle – but a puzzle nevertheless! I mean, what other Hallmark movie can say that it has something more than generic attractive people wearing good coats and falling in love in fake snow, probably with a festive gazebo involved?! 

Unfortunately, things can't stay wonderful forever as it's time for the third act conflict – arriving with a bonus twist. As it turns out ... dramatic pause ... Glenn IS the mysterious William Austin. WHAT A ... totally transparent reveal. I mean, first of all, economy of characters means that there's only a few characters Austin could turn out to be – and I highly doubt Riley the shy arts teacher is secretly a secret tech CEO? Maybe, I don't know, the VP who secretively doesn't have a photo on the company's website could be the guy?! HMM! Also: Did I imagine things, or didn't Winona and Glenn/William talk about his father's choices and missions for the company? And while we're at it, Winona is awfully rude and short to Glenn throughout the movie despite the fact that ... he's technically her boss? Would this all make more sense if I read the L. Frank Baum book!?

Nevertheless, the newly revealed William Austin makes his announcement at the big fundraiser event, and even though he also says that Gumm got the gig, Darcy's not pleased that Glenn was the man behind the curtain the whole time. She even makes a big smelly "who farted" face on stage, in front of all the cameras they invited for this big event, while he's making the announcement. WAY TO RUIN ALL YOUR GOOD PR WITH YOUR SULKINESS! Save it for offstage! But also ... come on. This feels a little bit like a mild overreaction. You couldn't figure out that this VP sure sounded very personally connected to this charity and that William just happened to never be around. A Hallmark Movies & Mysteries case, this is not. 

Thankfully, there are more "Wizard of Oz" references to help distract from this silly drama – and, even better, it doesn't last that long. Darcy heads back home to her kooky family, but her friends from New England and Glenn/William call and jet over to win her back – thanks to the surprisingly helpful nudging of Winona West, who doesn't melt but does unthaw her heart and realizes what good Darcy's done for the charity and for her boss. She even tosses in a final "away, my pretties" reference for good measure!

So William pops over to the Midwest to give Darcy a cute speech, tell her they've been hoping to open some branches in smaller markets around the country – like, say, Kansas – and, uh, accidentally knock down all of her presents. Hope you didn't get anybody anything fragile for Christmas this year!

But that's not the important part. The important thing is they fall back in love – with all the business and work stuff fixed – and I get a Hallmark movie that may not be great and powerful, but was far better than I could've expected. 

Verdict: Aunty Em! Aunty Em! It's a success! IT'S A SUCCESS!

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 several 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 – and if you have your own drinking game, pass it along! After all, tis the season for sharing (and getting sloshed)!

  • Reference to a dead relative? Instead of an Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, Darcy has a father Henry and a stepmother Em(ma). Stepmother, you say? Yep, her mom died – which means it's time for L. FRANK BOMB SHOTS!
  • Christmas-y main character names? Unfortunately, the priorities for this story are lining up with "Wizard of Oz," not Christmas. Could've at least made William Austin's fake persona "Steven Holly" or something that, jeez. Oh well, NO DRINK!
  • Fake Christmas tree disses? You're more likely to find a flock of flying monkeys in a Hallmark movie than a fake Christmas tree diss at this point. SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW, I'D BE ABLE TO DRIIIIIIIINK ... BUT NOT HEEEEERE!
  • Newcomer in old-timey tradition? This one would seem prime for a drink, but unfortunately there aren't a lot of old-timey traditions at Emerald and Darcy's too busy planning fundraising events to detour off to decorate cookies or do a sack race or something. STAY SOBER – SOMEHOW THIS IS MISS GULCH'S FAULT!
  • Hot chocolate? Here we go: not one but TWO cups of hot cocoa in this Hallmark movie. Sure, one of them is sugar-free but still counts! LIONS AND TIGERS AND BOOZE, OH MY!
  • Near-miss kiss? Sure, there are moments of romantic tension, but none of those classic "move closer together and oh no my dad just awkwardly walked in so I guess we won't kiss and I sure hope we're not approaching the third act conflict" situations. IF HAPPY LITTLE BLUEBIRDS DRINK OVER THE RAINBOW, WHY OH WHY CAN'T I!?
  • Product placement? Oh boy, so during a conversation scene with Darcy and her family, the camera just happens to wander its way over to a Balsam Hill ornament box and lingers there for a surprisingly long time. Characters were talking, and the camera just fully did not care. I thought maybe the camera operator passed out or something, but nope, just gallingly obvious product placement. More like product hijacking than placement – like I'm complaining, though, because PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE BOOZE GOING DOWN MY THROAT!
  • Snowball fight or ice skating? There's a Christmas maze – adorably lit, if I may say so – but unfortunately no snowball fighting or ice skating. A shoe gets accidentally launched? Is that something? No? GAH, BE SOBER!
  • Ugly sweater or tie? There's some sparkly ruby red slippers, but sadly the ugly sweaters and ties took this movie off. And apparently so can MY LIVER BECAUSE REMAIN SOBER!
  • Big city person in small town? Kansas isn't a small town, per se, but it's certainly smaller than New England. THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE HOME OR A WINE BOTTLE!
  • Caroling, tree farming or cookie baking? Serve me a double, as there's a whole plot point set at a tree farm AND I believe there are some carolers as well! I'LL GET YOU, MY PRETTY GLASS OF BOOZE – AND YOUR LITTLE CHASER, TOO!
  • Mistletoe? More like mistle-NO, AMIRITE!? (Unfortunately, I am right.)
  • Magic deal with Santa/angel? "If I Only Had Christmas" may be based on "The Wizard of Oz," but there's no actual wizardry doing on here – unless you're talking about the magic dance moves that Riley and Darcy bust out at the fundraiser for ... reasons? MORE LIKE IF I ONLY HAD A DRINK!
  • Anytime you hear "Jingle Bells"? Is "Jingle Bells" out of vogue these days? Did it get canceled for some bad tweets? Because it's been mostly left on the musical shelf this Hallmark season – AND SO HAS MY SNIFTER BECAUSE STILL NO DRINK!
  • Snowed in? Unless you mean by "Wizard of Oz" references! Oh ... you don't. Well, that is disappointing. TOTO? MORE LIKE TO-NO ALCOHOL!

The special categories toss in some bonus drinks, as you can knock back your glass for Glenn's cynicism melting away as well as a shot for the welcome presence of Crown Media's crowned queen James Cameron Beret Candace Cameron Bure. But in the end, you won't be drinking so much that you too will think you just went through a dizzying twister – which is fine because "If I Only Had Christmas" doesn't require it.

Anyways, here's to Hallmark trying to adapt "Return to Oz" into a Hallmark holiday movie next! I will need significantly more alcohol ... 

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.