On January 6, 2016

Made-for-TV Christmas movies: “The Flight Before Christmas”

Editor’s note: The following is the third in a series of reviews of randomly selected, low-quality, made-for-TV Christmas movies.

Why do adults watch Christmas movies? I think we do it in large part to convince ourselves that Christmas exists. The made-for-TV Christmas movie, in particular, transports us to an alternate reality in which Christmas occupies a role of heightened importance, requiring more elaborate preparation, constituting a larger interruption of daily life, and inevitably bearing consequences for the entire year to follow. We watch in order to preserve a vestige of the childhood sense that this is a day of genuine significance, qualitatively different from every other date on the calendar, not just an extra day off from work or a stressful source of domestic obligation.

Take, for example, “The Flight Before Christmas,” which premiered on Lifetime earlier this month. The Christmas movies of the Lifetime network take place in a markedly more realistic universe from those of the ABC Family channel. A broad chirpiness, in which animatronic people scrubbed of all human complication dance and clown their way from happiness to even greater happiness, characterizes the latter; Lifetime movies, conversely, are made more or less for grownups (which is to say, I think, women in their late thirties, instead of women in their late twenties), and their characters arrive bearing histories of romantic disappointment and familial complication. They also have specific careers about which they care deeply. Even so, the power of Christmas exists in their world as it does not in ours, bringing forth holiday disasters and miracles alike; December 25th will not be just another day for them.

In “The Flight Before Christmas,” advertising exec Stephanie (former child star Mayim Bialik of “Blossom”) plans to spend the holiday season in Los Angeles, using her time off from work to move in with her boyfriend instead of going home to Connecticut, despite the nagging of her stereotypically overbearing Jewish mom (Stephanie is the product of a Catholic father and a Jewish mother—“the best of both worlds,” she sarcastically remarks. It is worth noting that in those few holiday movies in which Christmas is not presented as a universal truth a false binary exists in its place, even though, in reality, the majority of Americans who don’t celebrate Christmas also don’t celebrate Hanukkah). But Hollywood, with its inferiority complex, has never considered sunny, surreal Los Angeles an acceptable Yuletide venue. The quintessential Southern California Christmas of the movies is really that of Mel Gibson’s character in the first “Lethal Weapon,” where Riggs spends the night alone in a trailer, watching a Bugs Bunny holiday special with tears in his eyes and a gun pointed to his head; they are all yearning, out there, for Thomas Kincade’s Christmas cottage, with snow draped like a warming scarf over its roof.

So, days before Christmas, with her boxes already packed, Stephanie’s feckless boyfriend breaks up with her, and she books a last-minute flight home to soothe her heartbreak. On the plane, she encounters tall, handsome Michael (Ryan McPartlin), who happens to work for a rival marketing firm. Seated beside him, she finds him condescending; he finds her nosy. Even so, when their flight is grounded in Montana due to a sudden winter storm and (with a help of a benevolent, all-knowing, twinkle-eyed old man—I wonder who he really is) Stephanie manages to snag the last hotel room in town, she takes pity on him and invites him to share her accommodations. As it turns out, the Inn at Charles Peak is charming; the snowy town is magical, and as the storm continues, they get to witness some of the joy and simplicity of a true Christmas, away from the hustle and bustle of our urban centers—which leads Michael to question certain life choices, including his plan to propose to his Boston-based girlfriend (a blue-eyed blonde, the forever-enemy of Jewish movie heroines), with whom he has effortfully sustained a long-distance relationship for five years, even though the two of them have never quite clicked in any truly natural sense.

After the emptyheaded shenanigans of “12 Dates of Christmas” and “The Mistle-Tones,” it was refreshing for me to encounter here characters possessing the ability to think and talk, in a relatively mature manner, about the romantic problems and uncertainties that everyday people face, especially once their obligatory period of mutual obnoxiousness had passed. Tethered to an utterly predictable, routine plot, Stephanie and Michael nevertheless occupy their story as if it were real life.

Spoiler alert: the weather eventually clears, and despite an undeniable attraction to Stephanie, Michael continues on to Boston—realizing, however, that he and the blonde are not meant to be. It’s interesting to observe that the decision of Stephanie’s boyfriend to dump her on Christmas, when they’re on the verge of a major commitment, is presented as an inherently villainous act, but when Michael does exactly the same thing to his girlfriend (thus freeing himself to pursue Stephanie), he’s “following his heart.” What’s really the difference between a hero and a bad guy? I guess it just comes down to whose story is being told.

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