Director: Chazz Palminteri
Cast: Susan Sarandom, Penelope Cruz, Paul Walker, Alan Arkin
Watch Noel online in the UK: STARZPLAY / iTunes / Amazon Instant Video
What do Susan Sarandon, Penelope Cruz, Paul Walker and Alan Arkin have in common? They’re all lonely and miserable on Christmas Eve, which means that the laws of Christmas films dictate that they must each cross paths at some point – and have some form of festive epiphany that means that they’re not so alone after all.
It’s an age-old tradition, one that dates all the way back to 1946 and It’s a Wonderful Life. Frank Capra’s bonafide classic established the feel-good formula of sad people becoming happy at Christmas. It’s a template that Noel follows to the letter – not just once, but six times.
There’s Rose (Sarandon), who is caring for her Alzheimer’s-suffering mother to the point where she doesn’t care for herself. There’s Mike (Walker), a copy with a jealous streak that only pushes his wife, Nina (Cruz), away. There’s Artie (Arkin), who’s searching for his deceased wife. And there’s Jules (Marcus Thomas), a guy who injures himself on purpose so that he can spend Christmas in the hospital. Why? Because the only happy Christmas he can remember was when he was in ER as a kid and the staff held a party for the patients. How do we know this? Because he tells us in a laboured monologue within the first 20 minutes.
That’s the problem with Noel: David Hubbard’s script is so desperate to point out how troubled all these people are that it spells it out like we’re five-year-olds being taught the nativity story at Sunday school. Just to stand out from the oh-so-damaged pack, the Oscar-winning Sarandon is saddled with every problem you could imagine: she’s single, she has no children, she’s old, she has a mother who can’t remember her, and she struggles with talking to men. “Look at how sad she is!” the film’s sentimental music parps in our ears, as Sarandon walks around perpetually on the brink of tears. You half expect her to arrive home and discover her goldfish has died.
The parade of pity continues, even marching us all the way to the edge of an icy bridge. It’s like seeing a long checklist of cliches being ticked off. These aren’t humans we’re watching: they’re spreadsheets with legs.
There are occasional glimpses of something resembling actual people, as Penelope Cruz dances her way towards Paul Walker’s policeman in their bedroom, her laughing, him smiling. But the cast are never given more to work with than the symptoms of their shallow seasonal blues. The late actor’s undeniable charisma was perfectly channeled by Fast & Furious’s intentionally stereotyped hero, but Walker’s character is merely required to get a bit angry now and then. Alan Arkin is at least dealt a left-field plot twist involving the irate officer, but even that swiftly descends into maudlin tripe. By the time an uncredited Robin Williams appears halfway through – in a role that is, frankly, painful to see so soon after his passing – you’re ready to block up your chimney and call Christmas off altogether.
Just when you don’t think you could frown any more, you notice Chazz Palminteri’s name on the director’s chair. The actor, who has always impressed in everything from The Usual Suspects and Bullets Over Broadway to Legend, may well have a good film in him – but this isn’t it. Even if he’s fantastic with his performers on-set, it’s not enough to overcome the insipid dialogue they have to deliver. Poor Chazz Palminteri, you think to yourself. Poor Susan Sarandon. Poor Penelope Cruz. Poor Paul Walker. Poor Alan Arkin. Poor Robin Williams. What do all those big names have in common? They were all brought together in 2004 to appear in this dreadful film. Noel was never released in cinemas in the UK, but it’s now preserved forever on Netflix, leaving the cast to act it out over and over again on-demand. Turning the TV off is the only way it can have a happy ending. No wonder they all look so miserable.
Noel is available to watch online in the UK on STARZPLAY, a streaming service that costs £4.99 a month. The platform is available on Virgin Media On Demand or through Amazon Prime Video, both as an add-on subscription to your existing account.