Whoever thought this would be a good Christmas release this past year really had no sense of when counter-programming is a bad idea. While this may be a cross between It’s a Wonderful Life, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and A Christmas Carol it is not light fare despite its resolution. It is, however, a much better film than I anticipated given its reviews and box office performance. Much like Passengers, it isn’t quite the movie everyone thought it was, though it was more honestly advertised.
The core cast is solid, made of a small ensemble of strong actors. Will Smith (Suicide Squad) headlines, but his character is joined by longtime companions played by Kate Winslet (The Dressmaker), Edward Norton (Sausage Party), and Michael Peña (The Martian). The four establish a sense of history and distress with very little. We are dropped into the middle of the problem. In fact, the story takes the bold move to concentrate on everyone other than Will Smith for the first third of the film.
On team 2 there is Helen Mirren (Eye in the Sky), Keira Knightley (Everest), and the youngest actor in this lineup, Jacob Latimore (Maze Runner). Each of these three has their moments, but there is little interaction between them. Mirren, in particular, gets to have a lot of fun with this role. The final pieces of the cast are Naomi Harris (Moonlight) and Ann Dowd (Captain Fantastic); each brings a particular sensibility to the tale in necessary ways.
The film is a conundrum in some ways. There are few surprises in the movie… and you want there to be few. As a viewer you are complicit in the choices and willing to wish for the least likely reason for the action. Even as the film attempts to provide cover and plausible deniability for as long as it can, you are aware of the truths and it makes you embrace them. And the reason is that it isn’t whether the fantastical is real that is important or not, it is the choices of the characters and their actions.
That is the strength of Allan Loeb’s (Rock of Ages, Wall Street 2) script. It is also the solid results of Frankel (Hope Springs, The Devil Wears Prada) directing. It is also indicative that between the cast and crew there are 100s of award nominations and wins.
This isn’t a film you put on for a light evening. It deals with extreme emotions, albeit in a surface sort of way at times. But it is effective and cathartic and well executed. A holiday movie? Not in my books, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a place in the year’s rotation somewhere. Make time for it at some point, you’ll likely be surprised.