By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Dec 10, 2019 at 6:01 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 in Rome"

The Hallmark Channel went and outsourced a Christmas movie to Italy – and then they went and made the best Hallmark holiday movie I've seen so far this season. Dammit, America! Falling behind! I will be a single-issue voter in 2020, let me tell you, and that issue will be voting for whatever presidential candidate makes sure high-quality Hallmark movies are MADE IN THE USA! (And by that, I mean set in America but actually made in a "snowy" "small town" backlot in Vancouver.)

Who stars?

ALL RISE AND STAND AT ATTENTION FOR OUR BENEVOLENT HALLMARK MONARCH, QUEEN LACEY CHABERT! You know they wouldn't travel all the way to Italy to make a movie starring some third-stringer soap opera reject. Nope, they went with one of the holy Hallmark triumvirate. Well, now just the holy Hallmark duo since Lori Laughlin went and got pinched, leaving just Candace Cameron Bure and Chabert. And I'd watch my back if I was Bure. After all, do we REALLY know who tipped the feds off to Laughlin's illegal activities? HMM!? I'm just saying: Once a Plastic, always a Plastic ...

Falling in love with Queen Lacey I is Whitefish Bay native and "Mad Men" performer Sam Page, who talks this entire movie with a tight-lipped terseness as if he's still hasn't lost his pompous British accent from playing a prince in "Royal New Year's Eve" for Hallmark in 2017. I can relate; this weekend I watched a Premier League soccer game, and now I can't stop talking like a 1900s Cockney street urchin, OY GOV'NA!

Holly jolly or holy hell?

Maybe I'm just a sucker for anything remotely Italian. That's my excuse for genuinely liking Olive Garden – and you know what, I'm using it here too, because I actually legitimately enjoyed "Christmas in Rome." No, really. I smiled at the end  when the couple (*SPOILER ALERT*) fell in love and even laughed once or twice. OK, maybe just chuckled. Fine, smirked in acknowledgement that a joke attempt happened ... BUT THAT'S ABOVE AVERAGE!

Also: I was sincerely surprised by much of this holiday romance – mainly that HOLY, UH, HOLY PLACES, THEY'RE ACTUALLY IN ROME. I was working under the assumption that "Christmas in Rome" would just flash some Italian B-roll of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and some bowls of pasta before retreating back to filming on the same backlot street with the same backlot gazebo as usual, just maybe with some signs saying "fettuccini" or "buongiorno" plastered around. You know that scene in "Inglourious Bastards" where Brad Pitt's Nazi hunter pretends to be Italian but with a hilariously undisguised Southern accent? Yeah, I expected that ... but Hallmark Channel.

Instead, I got Lacey Chabert and Sam Page walking around ACTUAL Roman streets and overlooking scenic vistas that weren't green screened in. OK, sure, any interior scenes were definitely Vancouver, watching a old school Roman cafe transition into a Canadian winter cabin that I've DEFINITELY seen three times already in other Hallmarks this holiday season. But for the most part, there was some legitimate Italian texture and character in "Christmas in Rome," from the setting to the cute little factoids spread throughout the script – like how you should order a "caffe latte" instead of a "latte" at Italian coffee shops because the latter is just hot milk or the tradition of buying a bonus coffee for a stranger. And in the world of bland Hallmark movies, a little charming texture can go a long way.    

But enough about backdrops; let's talk actual people. Lacey Chabert plays ...  oh, let's be serious, no one's bothering with her fake name. Lacey Chabert plays Lacey Chabert But A Tour Guide who takes her groups to awesome Roman bakeries where they make massive trees of sweets that I thought only existed in Ferrero Rocher commercials. She seems like an outstanding tour guide – like Willy Wonka but minus the harming children! So how come she gets fired as soon as she gets back to her tour guide office? According to her boss, she refuses to stick to the script of typical tourist hotspots, instead getting easily distracted by under-appreciated gems. Well, that doesn't seem too bad. She sneaks people into places without permission? OK, not allowed, but not the worst, either. She lost an entire team of Irish rugby players and also took down an ancient sword so some touring kids could play with it? Oh. OK, maybe she is just actual Willy Wonka, complete with the harming children. 

While moping around the city, she runs into our Handsome Romantic Lead: Oliver, a businessman in town right before the holidays in order to finalize a deal with a local Italian artisan ceramics shop. I mean LITERALLY runs into him too. Nobody in Hallmark movies has depth perception; I trust none of them to drive cars. I imagine the freeways look like "The Walking Dead" – just a one million car pile-up. Anyways, Oliver is introduced as, sure, a businessman but also festive enough to nosh cookies and drink a very extravagantly cheerful hot chocolate during a meeting. It's somewhat confusing when this seemingly pleasant guy becomes so disinterested in anything interesting in Rome or Christmas, but it's also a nice change-of-pace that he's not, like, "Hi, Christmas is a holiday for cowards and chumps – also my name is Oliver," as opposed to most Hallmark movie scrooges. 

Of course, the two's run-in is nowhere near the end of things as Oliver is lost and Lacey Chabert is conveniently a tour guide. And so, in a nice and unhassled trip, she takes him to his meeting with the man in charge of the ceramics company, who ... wait, why do I know this beautifully maned man? And why do I feel like people were murdered around you? Oh hi, FRANCO NERO – famous for playing Django in the Spaghetti Western of the same name and most recently seen the Roman branch of the Continental hotel for assassins in "John Wick: Chapter 2." From headshots to Hallmark – what a life.

But apparently, when he's not housing dog-avenging murderers and making sure Baba Yaga isn't going to kill the Pope, Franco Nero also makes lovely hand-crafted holiday trinkets – trinkets that Oliver's big business would love to take global. But unfortunately, Oliver doesn't know that Italian meetings are more smalltalk than business – and he knows nothing about the spirit of Rome, something very important to Franco Nero. If only there was a tour guide with a lot of unexpected free time arounOH HI LACEY CHABERT! Indeed, in need of an Italy infusion, Oliver hires Lacey to give him a quick walking education about the city, and she agrees – even if she scoffs at giving a mere crash course tour. MA'AM, YOU ARE CURRENTLY UNEMPLOYED. Beggars, choosers, etc. Plus, you're lucky you're getting this gig after saying something as eye-rolling as, "I just saved your pancetta."

And so begins our Rome-trotting romance, as Lacey Chabert teaches Oliver to appreciate the city's smaller attractions and learn the local customs – in the process giving the audience a decent education as well – while Oliver sweetly nudges Lacey into legitimately starting her own tour guide business, focusing on more than just the basics and tourist traps. Most importantly, though, they flirtily make some panettone together and reenact "Ghost" (or that creepy KFC chicken and waffles commercial). And all the while, our once-aloof company stooge learns to appreciate Franco Nero's business perspective that "art cannot be rushed."

Apparently good Hallmark movies can't be either, because that's a lot of why "Christmas in Rome" works. Despite regular interruptions from Oliver's annoyingly one-note boss Estelle asking WHY ARE YOU SMILING WHEN YOU SHOULD DOING BUSINESS THINGS IMMEDIATELY, the movie continues to take its own leisurely pace, soaking in the city and enjoying the sights with our cute romantic leads – who actually are quite charming together. I wasn't particularly impressed with my first Chabert experience, but she's got some fun pep here, and while I joke about Page's mouth still stuck on being some vaguely European prince, he loosens up as the movie goes along and adds some funny snap to his lines. Together, the duo has some legitimate flirty energy that the script doesn't force into contrived plots or misunderstandings; instead they just hang out and slowly grow quite attracted to each other. (And also make panettone.) I'm not saying that this is Hallmark's version of "Before Sunset" ... but the fact that I'm even CONSIDERING that comparison is a big compliment to its relatively relaxed hangout vibe.

All of the new exciting Italian culture and sights also distracts "Christmas in Rome" from stuffing in too many Hallmark cliches. I mean, sure, they somehow managed to sneak the token Adorably Precocious Kid thanks to some random neighbors, and the boss' constant calls reminding the movie to have a plot are frustrating. NO ONE CARES ABOUT YOUR BUSINESS DEAL, ESTELLE; YOU'RE NOT MAKING A MINT OFF ARTISAN ORNAMENTS ANYWAYS! But otherwise, the movie happily focuses on the unique texture of the city and the people – Nero is an unexpected MVP here, adding a live-in warmth but also a rare intensity to a Hallmark movie – as well as the growing chemistry between Lacey Chabert and Oliver, making it feel more natural and real than the usual puffery. 

And speaking of the usual Hallmark puffery, "Christmas in Rome" even sticks the third-act conflict landing! I was sure the movie was building to a predictable falling out near the end, with maybe Lacey Chabert overhearing the ONE bad part of a phone call where she thinks Oliver's only interested in Franco Nero (and her) for business purposes. Or maybe Lacey Chabert would get stressed out and feel forced into creating her new business while Oliver realizes that he needs to focus on landing the deal and gets emotionally chilly. All classic Hallmark conflicts – and all tedious and cliche. But instead, "Christmas in Rome" lands on ... a legitimate human emotional conflict, as Oliver and Lacey Chabert go on a wonderful date but realize that their lives – his business-centric and travel-happy, hers happy at home in Italy – might not work well together. A relatable relationship conflict? IN A HALLMARK MOVIE!? Rome: a city of miracles, I tell you. 

Of course, they figure it all out. Lacey Chabert realizes that she wants to be with Oliver, and since he exploded his cell phone by dropping it in the sink, she has to race off to some holiday event and profess her love to him before he leaves the country. Thankfully, there are Vespas around because boy, this movie loves Vespas. It might be the biggest ad for Vespas since that five-minute Macklemore song about buying a moped. But all that zipping around was for naught because Oliver's not leaving the country; he landed the deal with Franco Nero and, in the process, earned the job of overseeing the company from Rome, so he won't have to travel the world or focus on other business deals anymore. BYE ESTELLE – AND HELLO LOVE!

Oh, and also hello new tour guide company because Oliver's random rich friends liked Lacey Chabert's pitch enough to invest in it – even if her "business plan" appeared to be just a PowerPoint presentation. Come on, Lacey; at least Prezi that ish up.

But even without fancy presentation software, it's a happy ending for everyone – most of all, me, because I got to truly enjoy a Hallmark movie. And it truly was the Olive Garden of movies: sure, maybe not the best thing in the world and dubiously Italian on occasion .... but still very, very satisfying and soul-warming. The only thing missing was the unlimited soup, salad and breadsticks, and also a crying child sitting at the table right behind me.

Verdict: Jingle bellissimo! (Still better than the pancetta line.)

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? Oh, how I missed you, original Hallmark holiday drinking game. You just don't know what you've got 'til it's gone. And I know what I've got: TWO DRINKS BECAUSE ANGELA'S PARENTS ARE DEAD! WOO! (OK, maybe not ... woo. But still drink twice.)
  • Christmas-y main character name? In addition to our main character Angela, the actress who plays half of Oliver's random rich client friends is Holly Hayes. Holly! That counts, right?! Listen, I quite liked a Hallmark movie, so I've gotta wash this realization out of my brain as quickly as possible. DRINK(s)!
  • Fake Christmas tree disses? I'm going to have to come up with a new category here. Ever since Hallmark joined forces with Balsam Hill, I'm sure they're now legally obligated to avoid making fun of fake Christmas trees. NO FUN! Also: NO DRINKING! 
  • Newcomer in old-timey tradition? Hard to find a place more old-timey than Rome! Unfortunately, the movie sticks with cute traditions like ornament painting as opposed to, say, slaughtering people in the Colosseum. Angela does talk about the gladiator fights, but does nicely avoid saying anything involving the killing and bloodsport of it all. Hallmark: No murder allowed! However, DRINKING IS ALLOWED! WEEE!
  • Hot chocolate? I was concerned we'd exclusively be drinking lattes (pardon me: caffe lattes) and wine and limoncello – but nope! Oliver is introduced knocking back a cheerful mug of the chocolate stuff. So even though Angela later on in the movie TURNS HOT COCOA DOWN like a MONSTER, you can still BERE! (That's drink in Italian ... I think. It's all starting to smear in my vision now.)
  • Near-miss kiss? Nope, these two ain't got time for doodling around smooching. They go RIGHT IN FOR ROMANCE, kissing right away. The first time, I was waiting for some pickpocket to bump in and ruin everything, but nope. I genuinely appreciate this movie's commitment to avoiding some of the cliches. I do not, however, appreciate that DON'T DRINK!
  • Product placement? This movie shoves Franco Nero's hand-painted ornaments so often into the camera and talks about them so glowingly that I assumed they HAD to be product placement. I was just waiting for the camera to pan down a box of these little gems and reveal a big BALSAM HILL logo in flashing neon on the side. But nope! The movie just really likes ornaments! However, this whole thing is basically just a big ad from the Rome Tourism Board, so I say CONSUMARE! (That's another word for drink in Italian ... probably.)
  • Snowball fight or ice skating? No snowball fighting and not a single ice rink. Carolina Kostner would be so disappointed. Why yes, that is a reference to the women's figure skating bronze medalist from the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics – I CONTAIN MULTITUDES! What I don't contain, however? ALCOHOL!
  • Ugly sweater or tie? Nothing's ugly in Rome, so NADA ALCOHOL YET AGAIN!
  • Big city person in small town? Hey, Rome's only the 104th largest city on the globe. That's practically tiny! No? Not giving me this one? FINE! KEEP SOBERING UP!
  • Caroling, tree farming or cookie baking? We got the whole holy trinity in this movie – only befitting a backdrop that the Catholic church calls home. There's a concert of carols, there's a tree farming sequence AND there's some cookie baking. Or at least some cookie decorating. But definitely some panettone baking! I SAY GET THE GOOD GRAPE JUICE AND DRIIIIINK!
  • Mistletoe? That's gonna be a mistle-no as Rome has too many other traditions to make room for an awkward kissing herb. They do toss coins into the Trevi Fountain, though, so there's that. NO DRINKING THOUGH!
  • Magic deal with Santa/angel? While Oliver does strike a deal with Franco Nero, the latter qualifies as neither Santa or an angel – though I would argue turning a secondary character in a Hallmark holiday movie into something resembling a full, textured person is some serious divine intervention. Still, Django? MORE LIKE DJANG-NO CONSUMING BOOZE!
  • Anytime time you hear "Jingle Bells"? What does Italian "Jingle Bells" sound like? Probably sounds pretty friggin' incredible – like the San Marzano tomatoes of music. Anyways, the songs here, like everything in this movie, are better than expected, setting a sense of place and even a sense of festiveness in a setting that's not stereotypically holiday-like for a Hallmark movie ... but no "Jingle Bells." Which is no good for my palate (but very good for my liver). CONTINUE SOBRIETY!
  • Snowed in? Was ... there even snow at all? FINE! I'LL KEEP NOT DRINKING! (For now.)

Again, I don't think there was single snowflake outside of Oliver's GPS tracking device in "Christmas in Rome," so there's no bonus drink for flurries on Christmas. Oliver's also not really a cynic – the guy is introduced drinking from a cheery mug and wanting cookies, come on – so no extra swig there either. That all leaves just one shot for a Hallmark Christmas movie starring Lacey Chabert – and leaves me alarmingly sober at the end of this flick.

Thankfully, I didn't really need booze to get through "Christmas in Rome." I was effectively charmed! Well done, Hallmark – though I'm not sure about any more Italy-centric holiday movies. "Holly Jolly Pompeii" just seems in poor taste ...

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.