‘You’re like Clarence sent down to save my wonderful life.’ The line is spoken by Eleanor (Olivia Wilde) to Joe (Jake Lacy), a GI whom she has met while snowed-in at an airport, and it is an intentionally obvious homage to Frank Capra’s revered Christmas movie (notwithstanding the 1946 classic’s alarming racism).
Eleanor is trying to get home to spend Christmas Day with her fashionably dysfunctional family. Mom and Dad (Diane Keaton and John Goodman) are on the verge of breaking up, brother Hank (Ed Helms) is out of work and at war with his ex, sister Emma (Marisa Tomei) has been nabbed for shoplifting and the cantankerous Pop (Alan Arkin doing his ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ shtick) has an old man’s crush on a waitress at the diner (Amanda Seyfried).
With a voice-over from Steve Martin, as whimsical as only he can be, and a script that often feels like it is being written on the run, the ingredients of Jessie Nelson’s erstwhile festive season feelgood flick aren’t promising. But cinema has a remarkable capacity for rising above the shortcomings of its parts and, by about the halfway mark, I had been completely won over.
Family potpourri stories designed to arrive at a happy ending generally spread the narrative’s load evenly among its participants. That principle is adhered to here, but it is what happens between Eleanor and Joe that steals the show.
He is a Republican and a creationist, she a playwright liberal boozer who is having an affair with a married man. The dialogue is smart without needing to mock Joe (thankfully) and the connection between the pair is true. Their scenes are by far the best in a movie that is not laugh out loud but big on heart and gently funny – although Hank’s son Charlie’s first kiss at the mall is hilarious.
A little pop psychology goes a long way, but an outstanding cast (with James Stewart’s George Bailey ever present) manages to make a silk purse out of what might have been a sow’s ear. Highly commended.