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Noel (A Movie Review)

NOEL (2004)

Starring Susan Sarandon, Penelope Cruz, Paul Walker, Alan Arkin, Marcus Thomas, Sonia Benezra, Marcia Bennett, Kim Bubbs, Ruth Chiang, Donna Hanover, David Julian Hirsch, Chantal Lonergan, Sonny Marinelli, Chazz Palminteri, Erika Rosenbaum, Victoria Sanchez, Daniel Sunjata, Maurizio Terrazzano and Robin Williams.

Screenplay by David Hubbard.

Directed by Chazz Palminteri.

Distributed by The Convex Group. 96 minutes. Rated PG.

Christmas films have certainly changed over the years. The Bing Crosby fireside songs, the religious and spiritual lessons, the peace on Earth and goodwill towards all mankind; all that seems quaintly foreign now. Today, the holiday is most often the butt of mean-spirited jokes; something to be survived, not to be enjoyed. This year alone the holiday season was made just a back-story to the dumb comedy moves of Surviving Christmas and the upcoming, not much better-looking Christmas With the Kranks, which is all about trying to ignore the yuletide.

Think about it, if It's A Wonderful Life was made today, Jimmy Stewart would just jump off of the bridge and Clarence still wouldn't have his wings. Either that or ZuZu would be pissed off because she didn't get the doll she wanted and grow up needing therapy due to the slight. The moral of It's A Wonderful Life was that no man was poor as long as he had friends. The new film Noel, on the other hand, looks at the Christmas stories of the people who do not have friends.

This is actually the germ of a fantastic idea for a film. They say that the suicide rate multiplies around the holidays. There are many people walking around the crowded streets, seeing the lights and hearing the carols, who know that they are watching from the outside. Christmas isn't just large families sitting around the tree and exchanging gifts. For some people, it is just a reminder that they don't have a large family, a tree and lots of presents. Sometimes their stories are even more interesting than the traditional ones.

Noel allows us to experience the yarns of five of these loners as they walk the snow-covered streets of Manhattan. Susan Sarandon plays Rose, an aging divorcée whose entire life revolves around going to her job in a publishing house and then spending most of her time at the hospital caring for her mother who is in the final stages of Alzheimer's. She hasn't dated since her husband left her years before, and when a younger co-worker talks her into going out with an office lothario, she realizes how far out of the dating scene she is. Then she meets a nice, quiet but mysterious man (an uncredited Robin Williams) who is visiting the dying old man across the hall from her mother.

Jules (Marcus Thomas) is a former orphan in his twenties whose best memory was of being in the hospital on Christmas Eve when he was only fourteen. Therefore, he decides to spend the night at the hospital's Christmas party, even if it means that he has to be injured to get in.

Nina (Penelope Cruz) is a beautiful office worker who is getting married in a week but decides to leave her fiancé because he is pathologically jealous. He is Mike, a cop who can't seem to control his temper and his insecurity. He finally gets a sense of perspective when he finds he has certain similarities with an older (and apparently unhinged) diner waiter named Artie (Alan Arkin) who is convinced that Mike is the reincarnation of his late wife.

The five people's lives intersect, sometimes in natural ways (Mike eats in Artie's restaurant, or he meets Jules in the hospital waiting room) and occasionally in unlikely ways (Rose gets swept into a family celebration with Nina's clan when she decides to sneak a peek into the boisterous house party.).

I can't quite say that Noel is completely successful in its attempt to tell the heartwarming sagas of the forgotten people, but it is nice that the filmmakers at least try. Perhaps the problem is that these people don't seem to be merely lonely. At least two of these characters appear to be crazy (Arkin and Thomas) and even the sanest person here comes dangerously close to committing suicide. This attempt to jump into a river is only stopped by the appearance of a passerby who should not be there, in a scene obviously meant to be strongly reminiscent of It's A Wonderful Life. This leads to a "Christmas Miracle" which is both just a tiny bit too predictable and a tiny bit too unbelievable.

That's okay, though. Imperfect though it may be, I have to admit to feeling a certain amount of affection for Noel. Sure, the film is more than a bit sappy and trying just a little too hard. However, that is just like the lives it chronicles. The film has a sad, quirky quality and a desperate need to please that makes it almost impossible to totally dislike. (11/04)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2004 All rights reserved. Posted: November 15, 2004.


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