November 12th, 2004
Chazz Palminteri may play a tough guy mobster or tough guy cop as an actor, but for his feature directorial debut, he shows off his gentile side, with some success. “Noel” may be sentimental and sappy enough to keep a maple syrup factory busy all year long, but isn’t that the point of Christmas movies anyway?
It’s Christmas Eve in Manhattan, and there are as many different feelings about the holidays as there are people in the city. Rose (Susan Sarandon) is a successful book editor, but her professional success masks her private pains, being the sole caregiver for her ill mother and having recently been divorced. Jules (Marcus Thomas) is a troubled twentysomething haunted by his sole fond Christmas memory, with no family or friends to help him through his predicament. Mike (Paul Walker) is one of New York’s finest, just a week away from his wedding to the beautiful Nina (Penelope Cruz), whose jealousy and paranoia has driven here away. Mike also has to deal with Artie (Alan Arkin), a kindly older man at a local diner who believes he knows Mike from long ago. Meanwhile, Nina makes a life-changing discovery which must force her to make a hard decision about her relationship with Mike.
Like many Christmas-themed movies of yore, a mysterious person figures into the story, and here that seraph is Charlie, the first visitor Rose has ever seen to the comatose man who is cared for in the hospital room across from her mother. Feeling down after a failed date with a much younger office colleague (Daniel Sunjata, from “Rescue Me”), Rose opens up to this stranger in the other room, a former priest who left his parish after a crisis of conscience, who reminds her that no one is truly alone at Christmastime. But isn’t that the whole point of Christmas movies? George Bailey learned the hard way he was not alone, in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” as did Willie T. Stokes in “Bad Santa.” We are not alone, as long as we open ourselves up to the wonderful possibilities of life and the people who surround us.
While “Noel” really has nothing original to say, Palminteri makes the whole hokey mess work, using the considerable charms of his ensemble to maximum value, with Walker especially showing hints that he’s got more talent than anyone has given him credit for with the “Fast and the Furious” movies. As shot by “Titanic” cinematographer Russell Carpenter, “Noel” makes New York City look beautiful, especially the few scenes actually shot in New York City (Montreal, of all places, stands in for The Big Apple for most of the film’s running time), and Alan Menken’s score effectively conveys the spirit of the holidays.
”Noel” is likely to annoy cynics who have a hard time just letting a simple, sweet story envelop them, and there is no argument the individual stories and their conclusions are utterly simplistic, but should find an appreciative audience amongst those who still enjoy everything about the Christmas holiday season.
My rating: B-