On November 9th, 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 forced assigned to watch a new Hallmark movie a week during the holiday season and write about his discoveries and loss of dignity.
These are the chronicles of Matt's Hallmark holiday hell.
For my first Hallmark movie torture session, I thought it would be best not to stray too far from my comfort zone – and what would be better than a Hallmark movie that takes place in Wisconsin?! Unfortunately, the blissful Christmas-centric city of Klaus, Wisconsin is a work of fiction ("Miss Christmas" was actually filmed in Canada), but at least they got the license plates right.
Hold on – this was a Wisconsin-set movie with not a single item of Packers merch? ZERO STARS.
Mad Libs plot summary
A big-city and/or corporate professional Christmas tree finder arrives in a small town in the hopes of finding the perfect replacement tree for a Chicago lighting celebration. In the process, she stumbles into a handsome Wisconsin farmer (WOO!) who's fallen out of love with the holidays thanks to the death of his mother, but also has the perfect tree for her ceremony. Will she get the tree, while also thawing his frozen, Grinch-like heart? And will they find the greatest Christmas gift of all ... love?
Hot chocolate, chirpy relationship commentary from a best friend character and adoring looks from his father and child ensue.
Marc Blucas plays the ruggedly handsome but emotionally frigid Sam. He played Riley Finn on "Buffy," as well as quickly forgotten movies like ... "Knight and Day"? "Summer Catch"? "View from the Top"? Basically, he was too bland for Hollywood ... which means he's perfectly bland enough for Hallmark.
Meanwhile, our passionate Christmas tree hunter is played by Brooke D'Orsay, who you might recognize as Paige Collins from the USA Network television show "Royal Pains" or as Margaret from an episode of "How I Met You Mother."
Or there's the time she played Battlesh*ts in "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle."
Like one could ever forget that.
Holly jolly or holy hell?
I've spent the last ... all of this article poking fun at the cliches and corny wholesomeness of Hallmark movies. But unlike any of the plot developments in "Miss Christmas," here's a twist that might surprise you: I kinda liked watching this puffball of holiday cheer and romance-novel fluffiness!
Yes, it's entirely predictable, with even a newcomer like myself able to pinpoint storylines coming from miles away. And yes, it's all incredibly warm and safe, like curling up by the fire. Actually, fire is too dangerous for Hallmark; it's more like curling up in a blanket with a mug of hot chocolate and marshmallows. No, that's too dangerous too; you could burn your mouth on the cocoa, and marshmallows can cause diabetes. So it's more like lukewarm hot chocolate with a bottle of aloe and a paramedic sitting nearby and also this is all taking place in a padded room. That's the kind of cozy safeness a Hallmark Christmas movie provides.
But I'll be damned if I wasn't kind of won over by "Miss Christmas," partly for the fun of guessing just how many cliches and tropes we'd hit or which particular obvious path the predictable plot would take by the time the end credits rolled. And maybe you'll get hit with a small surprise along the way, like the fact that Sam was a divorcee instead of the usual widower.
However, the real key to a Hallmark movie's success is the stars, and "Miss Christmas" has two pretty solid ones (by Hallmark standards). D'Orsay is just on the right side of exhaustingly perky, affably charming with her persistent holiday cheer and pleasant, endearing glow, while Blucas feels more real than the usual "just a little more dignified than a 'Bachelor' contestant" stubbled hunks these Hallmark movies wrangle up. There's a genuine tenderness and sarcastic, witty playfulness under his early gruff attitude that makes him a slightly more interesting and actually pretty nice romantic pursuit.
It's so nice, it makes the crappy third act falling-out between the two all the worse.
Dear screenwriters of the world: We need to delete rom-com trope of "person overhearing one part of a conversation that sounds bad and souring as a result" from our collective memories. It was overdone decades ago, and it only makes one of the characters – Sam, in this case – look like an eavesdropping moron who jumps to conclusions and refuses to have the kind of understanding, honest and adult conversation they've spent the last 75 minutes doing.
I grew to like these characters, and having one suddenly turn into a sulky teenager is not worth the romantic climax. I don't care how big or beautiful the Christmas tree is or how swoon-worthy the big kiss is. Take this cliche out back, put it out of its misery and then tell the kids that it's been taken to a happy farm up north where it's running wild and free.
"Miss Christmas" recovers enough, though. Sam reveals to Holly a heart carved into a new tree with their names carved inside of it – just like the one his parents put into the beloved tree he's been guarding from Holly and her corporate Christmas event planners – and everyone in our living room dropped a big, ol' "aww." Myself included. Maybe this assignment won't be so hellish after all.
Or maybe it's just all the red wine talking – speaking of which, my girlfriend liked that, "They have actual red wine glasses for their red wine." Hallmark knows which details are important.
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 last winter 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? Sam's sadly deceased mother. DRINK!
- Christmas-y main character name? Our Christmas tree hunter is Holly. DRINK!
- Fake Christmas tree disses? Oddly for a movie about Christmas trees, I remember no fake tree dissing. SOBER UP!
- Newcomer in old-timey tradition? All over the place. RESUME DRINKING!
- Hot chocolate? Uh, there's a freaking hot chocolate recipe-off, so DRINK!
- Near-miss kiss? Holly and Sam are having a flirty chat when – oh boy! – they walk under some mistletoe. And they get inches – no, millimeters; they're close enough to taste what each had for lunch – when Sam's Hallmark-mandated adorably innocent child, complete with a precious lisp, calls for him. It was so satisfying in its unsatisfyingness. It drew the loudest cheer of the day from the room – and the Packers had won earlier that afternoon! DRINK AND DRINK AGAIN!
- Product placement? Unless the product was the wholesome friendliness of Wisconsin, then nope. SOBER UP!
- Snowball fight or ice skating? There's gift-wrapping and a carriage ride and obviously decorating the Christmas tree ... but alas, no snowballs or ice skating. KEEP YOUR DRINK DOWN!
- Ugly sweater or tie? Not only are there ugly sweaters, but Sam's sister hand-knits several of them – complete with flashing lights in a few of them. She is the true Christmas miracle in "Miss Christmas." DRINK!
- Big city person in small town? Holly hails from Chicago (but probably not actually Chicago but a suburb of Chicago). Still counts. DRIIINK!
- Caroling, tree farming or cookie baking? In between hot chocolate recipe challenges, they also bake cookies, so DRINK SOME MOAR! DON'T JUDGE MEE!
- Mistletoe? Did you not read the near-miss kiss part? DRANKZZ! I SEE YOUR JUDTGING!
- Magic deal with Santa/angel? There is an angel in "Miss Christmas," but unfortunately it's just a tree topper, and while it means a lot to Holly – so much so she brings one to the Klaus tree finale – there are no magical pacts. STAHP DRINKY!
- Anytime time you hear "Jingle Bells"? We can assume so. DRIIIIiIIIINK!1!
- Snowed in? Nope. Accurate to Wisconsin winters, we solely get snow just in time for a gross-ass February and March. CEEESE DRINKZING!
As for the special categories, unfortunately, there's no snowing on Christmas that I can recall and no shot for a "Full House" member popping up. But Sam is eventually filled to the brim with the Christmas spirit – similar to how viewers will quickly be filled to the brim with their booze of choice watching "Miss Christmas."
Bonus drink for Holly owning an adorable yorkie puppy? Complete with a bow on its head? I think so. And another bonus drink for all of Holly's great coats. A-grade coat game.
Verdict: Ho, Ho, Hammered.
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.