By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Dec 19, 2018 at 7:56 PM

On Nov. 9, 2017, during an OnMilwaukee editorial meeting, pop 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. 

One year later, having learned absolutely nothing, he made the mistake all over again. 

These are the returning chronicles of Matt's Hallmark Holiday Hell.

"A Shoe Addict's Christmas"

I apologize that it's taken a while for this latest Hallmark Holiday Hell column. I've just spent the past week laying in bed and staring at myself in the mirror, lacquered in a cold sweat, muttering, "Who ARE you?" Why? Because ... I liked this Hallmark movie. You could even say my heart grew three sizes – something that isn't supposed to happen to a human being, which means I now have a very serious coronary condition. THANKS CANDACE!

Mad Libs plot summary

Instead of the usual filling-in-the-gaps, let's hand things over to this bot that was forced to watch 1,000 hours of Hallmark and then write its own Christmas movie for the channel. 

We're all laughing now (or, if you're Hallmark, you're probably getting ideas for next year's scripts) but this is how Skynet happens. It's all fun and games until a robot army rises up and enslaves the human race while cackling, "I bought Christmas and now it is never." At least the robo-pocalypse will come dressed in terrific winter coats.

Who stars?

Yes, technically Candace Cameron Bure is the star here, but we know who the real star is: Jean Mother Flippin' Smart.

The woman has three Emmys (two of the three for "Frasier" as a guest role). She's been nominated for a Tony Award, and in just the last five years, she's appeared on "Halt and Catch Fire," "Fargo," "Legion," "Veep," "Big Mouth" and a whole mess of other great television shows that I haven't gotten around to watching yet because "The Great British Baking Show" is just so darn cozy. AND when she's not doing all of that, she's totally stealing a Hallmark Christmas movie from one of the channel's queens. OH, and she also baked cookies and cupcakes for the cast of "Legion" during filming – COMPLETE WITH LITTLE X'S ON TOP BECAUSE IT'S AN X-MEN SHOW. 

In conclusion, Jean Smart for sainthood. 

Holly jolly or holy hell?

Last year, I dove into the deep end of Hallmark holiday movies with "Switched for Christmas," featuring not just one but two Candace Cameron Bures. And unfortunately for me, double your Cameron Bures did not double my fun. Instead, it was a really stiff and predictable twin switch "romantic" "comedy" eagerly trying to impress with a editing trick from "The Parent Trap" – the 1961 version. It was such a dopey and delight-free experience that I crossed off one of Hallmark's royalty. 

And I was wrong. 

As it turns out, when she doesn't have to play two under-written versions of herself while acting against an empty room where her doppelgänger will be spliced  in during post, Candace Cameron Bure can be a pretty charming lead and help make a Hallmark movie – like, say, "A Shoe Addict's Christmas" – pretty enjoyable. Actually acting against other people? WHO COULD'VE GUESSED THAT'D BE THE GAME CHANGER!? Or maybe she's just really inspired by shoes. No matter the case, sure, she still underlines a lot of her lines with obvious sitcom-y delivery, but she's also got some fun snap and spirit. 

It also helps that one of the people she gets to share the soundstage with is a legitimate actor. I flattered Jean Smart a lot above – and that's because she deserves it. The script isn't all that interesting or clever, but Smart makes her Clarence/"Christmas Carol"-esque angel of Marital Blisses That Might've Been a really fun screen presence, adding some oddball line deliveries that find the joke in some otherwise bland lines. Most Hallmark performances are defined by being beige and pleasant – no one in Hallmark feels emotions beyond smiley and mildly sad; no one has ever experienced anger in one of these movies – but Smart has such energy that you're totally on board wherever she takes you and Candace Cameron Bure, whether that's to the past, the alternate past, the alternate present based on the alternate past and jeez did I accidentally watch "Lost" instead of a Hallmark movie? I thought it was weird when Candace fell in love with a smoke monster.

No, actually our flustered and lost department store HR employee Noelle falls in love with the opposite of a smoke monster: a firefighter, played handsomely enough by Hallmark regular Luke Macfarlane. Is Jake the fireman particularly interesting? Nah. In fact, during the firehouse scenes, I kept finding myself wondering if one of his engine buddies was a slightly buffer alternate universe version of Kyle Mooney from "SNL." (Spoiler: Nope!) But the two are nice together, and even though the script doesn't give them much surprising to do, they're sweet enough to root for.

Their meet-cute is dopey and forced – while moving in next door, he somehow manages to horse collar tackle her to the ground; that's 15 years and an automatic first down! – and if you can't figure out which person the fire department will assign to work with Noelle on their joint charity event with the department store, you should also definitely send me your name, address, credit card number and social security number. But again, there's enough cute swooning together and enough charm between the performers to make it work. Maybe it's the firefighter uniform.

Plus, they don't bust out the god-forsaken contrived third act misunderstanding that makes me lodge a high heel into my frontal lobe. "Every pair of shoes tells a story," says Noelle near the beginning of the movie – and my story is "This bad screenwriting cliche makes me want to leave my mortal coil." (Focus, Matt, focus. You liked this movie, remember?) They get close with making Noelle choose to take the bullet and fire (HA because he's a fireman) Jake from the charity event because he had the GALL to think snow and snowmen would be nice for a Christmas party. WHAT A SIMPLETON! Why she'd choose this task instead of letting her snippy boss be the bad guy, I don't know, but the two actually handle this like adults and it barely registers as conflict. 

Anyways, that Hallmark plot point isn't in attendance in "A Shoe Addict's Christmas" ... but it's just about the only one that didn't make it in. Noelle's got a Christmas party to plan and a father-daughter relationship to mend and a Handsome Local to flirt with and a photography career to pursue and a mystery woman to investigate and an old photo to dig through the archives for (which why does this department store decorate its file storage?). And that's all before Jean Smart's magic guardian angel shows up to smash up "A Christmas Carol" and "It's a Wonderful Life" while introduce a bunch of different timelines and make the whole thing a Hallmark rendition of "Primer." It's pretty overstuffed; I thought we were addicted to shoes, not storylines. 

It's very busy for a Hallmark film, and even with all the story, there's not many surprises. But it's all in a good way – that charmingly wholesome, obvious, warmly comfortable way that the best Hallmark movies make feel like an old blanket: tired and not technically impressive but put together with heart and time-tested coziness.

Jean Smart's off-kilter performance keeps adding an unexpected fizz to the movie, and the message of pursuing one's dream is nice rather than patronizing and regressive. Sure, Smart also plays matchmaker because WHAT GOOD IS A CAREER AND FINANCIAL STABILITY IF YOU DON'T KNOW LOVE, but the emphasis is more on overall not settling, having faith in oneself and taking action on one's life rather than waiting for a miracle.

The big thing? By the end, when Noelle's distanced dad arrives unexpectedly at the big charity gala and our happy couple officially falls in love – and even when her persnickety boss takes a hard, very unexplained and very out-of-character U-turn away from Hardass Town toward Warmed-By-Christmas-Spiritville – I was smiling and happy. Even the forced yet painfully obvious final twist – again, if you don't know who her "mystery husband" is from the future, I know a Nigerian prince who could use your money and support – summoned an "aww" from me. 

For two hours, I was enchanted by the holiday spirit, warmed by the potential of love and wowed by the existence of a Christmas shoe tree. (TRULY THE SEASON OF MIRACLES!) I even emitted a few legitimate chuckles – because of intentional jokes, written in a script and delivered by actors and everything! 

Now, if you excuse me, I have to go visit my therapist because I DON'T KNOW WHO I AM ANYMORE. 

Verdict: Holly jolly(!)

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 two 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? (*puts on Oprah voice*) YOU GET A DEAD PARENT! AND YOU GET A DEAD PARENT! AND I GET TO DRINK BOOOOOOOOOOZE!
  • Christmas-y main character name? Well, her name's Noelle so you bet! Not only is the movie actually good, but you can get good and sauced while watching it too! (*pulls out pitch pipe*) THE FIRST NOELLE, THE BLOGGERS DID DRINK!
  • Fake Christmas tree disses? In case you needed proof that Balsam Hill faux fir company's dirty filthy money was robbing us of tasty beverage inhaling, "A Shoe Addict's Christmas" flaunts a big ol' Balsam Hill logo on screen during a decorating scene. NOW YOU'RE JUST TAUNTING ME! And worse yet, I'M NOT DRINKING!
  • Newcomer in old-timey tradition? Even with all the time-jumping, alternate-universe horseplay, there's no old-time traditions. MAINTAIN SOBRIETY!
  • Hot chocolate? There's no hot cocoa, but there is apparently an alternate universe in which Noelle's decisions led her to run a successful chain of hot dog restaurants. Hallmark, if this isn't one of the 77 new holiday movies released next year, I'm revolting. I insist on "A Hot Dog Holiday" becoming reality (I will also accept "Christmas In an All-Natural Casing" as a potential title.) And I also insist on returning to drinking soon because I AM PARCHED. Wait ... I just remembered Noelle gets hot chocolate with her dad on Christmas Eve! IT'S A CHRISTMAS MIRACLE! BOOOOOOOOZE!
  • Near-miss kiss? No Christmas miracle here, as I can't recall a near-miss kiss here. Again, if there's not a cute precocious kid around to ruin the smooch, there's probably NO DRINK HERE!
  • Product placement? (*grumbles*) For Balsam Hill. (*grumbles some more*) If I'm going to be robbed of fake tree joke drinks, the least this company can do is throw some product placement shots my way. And also decorate my own Christmas tree for me, because I'm too lazy. DRAAAAANKZ!
  • Snowball fight or ice skating? Early on, while Noelle and Jake are still frosty toward one another, Jake gets into a snowball fight with some rascally neighbor kids. First of all, yes, obviously one of his snowy projectiles pegs Noelle. I've seen less predictable sunrises. ("Cirrostratus clouds this time? WHAT A TWIST!") But secondly, Jake has just moved into this apartment building – and within about a day he's already having fun and games with the local children? Most unrealistic part of the movie – and this movie has a time-jumping angel lady. No one wants to do anything while moving accept nap – plus one wrong throw, dude, and you're no longer the new guy and suddenly the guy who broke Jimmy's clavicle. Plus, these kids don't know you! STRANGER DANGER, ANYONE! What irresponsible behavior; anyways, ALCOHOOOOOOLLLLLL TIIIIIIIIIIMMMMEEE!
  • Ugly sweater or tie? Jean Smart wears all the dorky Christmas outfits. We've got Mrs. Claus dresses. We've got ugly Christmas sweaters. We've got some festive bonnet hat ... thing. And all that means WE'VE GOT DRINKS AND DRANKS AND DRUNNNNNKS!
  • Big city person in small town? For my liver's sake, let's not say no. Interestingly, this is the rare Hallmark movie where our character's big dream actually keeps her in the big city rather than convincing her to live in the middle of a pleasant but surely pretty boring nowhere. That's kind of interesting! What's less interesting is MY GLASS IS EMPTY!
  • Caroling, tree farming or cookie baking? No caroling or tree farming (damn you, Balsam Hill; DAMN YOU!) but there's definitely a cookie baking sequence – complete with a Julia Child impression! I could get drunk on merely that – BUT WHY NOT ADD ALCOBOOZE TOO!
  • Mistletoe? We unfortunately wasted all our mistletoe on "Pride, Prejudice and Mistletoe." LEARN TO SHARE, LACEY CHABERT! Anyways, NO DRINKIES!
  • Magic deal with Santa/angel? God bless you, Jean Smart. In case it wasn't enough that you're fun and goofy and just the kind of oddball personality Hallmark movies never really have around, your role here also blesses me with ANOTHER GLASS OF LIQUID CHEER AND ALSO WHY IS MY COMPUTER SCREEN TURNING AND SPINNING? 
  • Anytime time you hear "Jingle Bells"? You thought you could sneak "Jingle Bells" twinkling on the soundtrack during Noelle and Jake's carriage ride without me noticing!? YOU DON't NKNW ME, HALLMARK! (*stumbles a bit, mumbles unintelligibly for a few minutes, maybe looks like he's contemplating puking, straightens up and thinks better of it*) UHNOTHER DRINKthhh!
  • Snowed in? No joke this time – like "Snowed in by Jean Smart's impeccable acting chops" or "Snowed in by Louboutins" – as Candace Cameron Bure is literally snowed in by actual snow. And pardon me while I get snowed in by MOAR YUMMY BOOZE NOM NOM (*feels jaw unhinge*) oh boy this was a mistake. 

You shouldn't take a shot for snow on Christmas, but you can definitely knock one back for the grinchy store owner suddenly being warmed by the Christmas spirit at the end of the film. Add in the bonus shot for Candace Cameron Bure making her requisite Hallmark holiday appearance, and you've had quite the night of knocking back your liquor of choice. It's starting to become clear why I liked this movie after all – which is the only thing I can see clearly after all these beverages. PURE BACKWOODS MOONSHINE WAS A POOR CHOICE.

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.