The following is the first in a series of reviews of randomly selected, low-quality, made-for-TV Christmas movies.
The most disconcerting element of the fictional universe of the 2011 ABC Family movie “12 Dates of Christmas”—the tale of a Manhattanite named Kate (Amy Smart) who goes on a blind date on Christmas Eve with the Perfect Man (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), botches it, and then must relive that same Christmas Eve again and again until she gets it right—is not the time-loop that traps its heroine within a didactic nightmare of repetition but the fact that, in Kate’s world, the movie “Groundhog Day” (1993) does not seem to exist, thus depriving her of the language with which she might describe and comprehend her predicament. The film comes across less as the story of a woman surreally stuck in time than as the story of a woman who surreally fails to recognize that she’s stuck in an obscure, terrible remake of a universally beloved movie from the 90s.
Believe it or not (and I think you can), “12 Dates of Christmas” is not the first Christmas-based rip-off of “Groundhog Day.” There are at least four others, including “Christmas Every Day” (1996); “Christmas Do-Over” (2006); “A Christmas Wedding Date” (2012); and “The Twelve Days of Christmas Eve” (2004), whose name could very well—more accurately than “12 Dates of Christmas,” in fact—have served as the title of the ABC Family iteration.
Why—apart from the laziness of hack screenwriters—is this such a popular concept for holiday movies? I think the central idea is inherently appealing: as human beings, we are all keenly aware that every moment of life affords countless possibilities that we will never explore and that, due to limitations of time, courage, and imagination, every day is in some sense an unfulfilled version of itself, a record of missed encounters, unnoticed miracles, unheard cries for help. The time-loop of “Groundhog Day” and its successors is presented as a curse imparted upon a moral offender, but in truth it’s a gift, which is why it makes for such a compelling fantasy: it amounts to nothing less than the ability to study and engage the entirety of the world in which one’s life takes place, instead of remaining confined to one’s narrow, shadowy daily experience of it.
The absence of consequences within this fantasy frees the main character to do whatever he or she wants, including things that otherwise might seem too frightening or risky. As it turns out, the most frightening (and ultimately rewarding) thing of all—the risk no one in the real world dares take—is to involve oneself in the lives of strangers, to engage someone on the street instead of passing him or her by. Here, the protagonist can finally discover what “other people” are really about, and this is probably the most appealing part of the whole concept—which, lest we forget, was technically a holiday movie in its initial incarnation (if you consider February 2nd a holiday) and, yes, gently moralistic (the life of Bill Murray’s character wouldn’t change until he himself changed).
Why not uproot the idea and transport it to a better, more important holiday, where, thanks to “A Christmas Carol,” there’s already an established tradition of employing fantastical plotlines for the purpose of sentimental scolding?
Over the course of “12 Dates of Christmas,” Kate undergoes a series of progressively deepening encounters with her neighbors, coworkers, and family; she finally talks to that woman in the park, that friendless dork at the bar. But she can’t really become a better person (as Bill Murray did), because she was never a person to begin with: she is only the condescendingly rendered blank slate onto which the target viewer of ABC Family’s cynical imagination—a materialistic, unimaginative woman pinned to her couch by the twin depressions of her meaningless career and disastrous personal life, shoveling Haagen-Dazs and watching ABC Family—can supposedly project herself. Kate’s otherworldly experience exists less to edify her than to clear the way for her to receive the prepackaged perfection of Mark-Paul Gosselaar (as Miles, the gorgeous widower who takes time out of his busy schedule as a successful landscape architect, à la Frederick Law Olmsted, to coach a youth hockey team composed solely of orphans), giving her some extra time to get over her ex and then to contrive the perfect Christmas Eve for herself and Miles.
She finally succeeds on their twelfth first date, thus liberating herself from the time-loop (which may or may not have kept going otherwise—we’ll never know whether the Christmas-themed pun of the title was a coincidental descriptor or the governing force of Kate’s spell). But what will happen when fate doesn’t give her twelve tries on their second date, and Kate has to present herself without revision?
The best thing about the movie is Gosselaar, the erstwhile Zack Morris, who turns in an assured and almost convincing performance as a ridiculous, pandering embodiment of male attractiveness. The empowering/degrading message of the movie is that the man of your dreams exists—you ladies just don’t deserve him (at least not yet). Every aspect of Miles is presented as an ideal, and this, somewhat disturbingly, extends equally to his status as a widower, which serves not only to cast him as a romantically tragic figure but, more importantly, to give him a proven track record of long-term commitment, without the implication of past failure that his current singledom would otherwise imply: technically, if you’re unmarried for any reason other than the death of your spouse, that kind of means you messed up at some point, at least from the perspective of single-minded marriage-seekers like Kate. Even the solemnly recounted story of Miles’s wife’s death—she fell while cleaning the gutters of their country house—functions more to introduce Miles’s affluence (he owns a vacation home!) than to create an emotional moment. Still: what a guy.