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The Noel Diary

When co-star Barrett Doss voices concerns that their new movie might suck, Justin Hartley reassures her: It’s a paycheck!

Synopsis:  Against a wintry backdrop, two people meet: a woman searching for her biological mother and a man trying to make peace with his own past. (Streaming on Netflix.)

We’re closing in on December, so it’s time for the annual onslaught of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year’s and Winter Solstice movies, with secular-ish  Christmas movies making up the lion’s share.

Movie lovers are familiar with the rom-commy setups: a holiday is fast approaching and an attractive person (usually a woman) is feeling kind of low. She might be an attractive executive who needs to return to her non-metropolitan hometown to run the family candle shop while her parents recover from food poisoning.  Then there’s the designated attractive love interest (usually a man) who possibly works in a physically demanding yet meaningful job. Maybe they are literally building a schoolhouse. Said love interest will look great in flannel. And, of course, the charming town has to be way North.  It’s Christmas, people! No one wants to see a couple tromping through Jacksonville, Florida in shorts and flip-flops, getting sunburn while they stave off dehydration with bottles of flavored water.

In The Noel Diary, the attractive couple consists of This Is Us’ Justin Hartley as Jake, a successful novelist and Rachel (Barrett Doss of Station 19), a cultured translator who is searching for her biological mother. Of course, they have no flaws, unless being good looking and talented are flaws.

As the movie begins, Jake is busy appearing at a bookstore signing. He writes espionage novels set in WWII France. All of the women in line come on to him. He just wants to get home to his Australian Shepherd doggo, Ava. But his me time is soon interrupted when a lawyer calls and tells Jake that his mother died. The two were estranged so Jake is less than enthused when the lawyer/estate executor says he needs to come to Connecticut to sign some papers. I guess the US Postal system was on vacay at the time.

The Noel Diary is based on a book of the same name by Richard Paul Evans who has made a career out of books focusing on protagonists who are unhappy heading into Christmas. Methinks Jake is an avatar for the author because every ten minutes someone marvels over what a successful author he is; and really hot too.

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Uh-oh, forgets his lines for The Noel Diary, realizes he can only remember dialog from his schmaltzy show This is Us.

Rachel is not as successful or pretty as Jake, but we like her. Their meet cute is kind of weird… Jake is tossing his hoarder mother’s stuff in a dumpster outside her old house when Rachel stops by and introduces herself as a non-stalker who is looking for her biological mother. Her research has led her to believe that her mother worked as a nanny at the house. Jake is affable as he shrugs and says he doesn’t remember having a babysitter, but maybe the lady across the street might know. A word about the lady across the street…

Bonnie Bedelia (Parenthood and the holiday-time classic Die Hard) is Ellie. Ellie hasn’t seen Jake for decades, not since his mentally ill mom asked him to leave the house. Yes, that is sad, but Jake zipped off to Paris (as penniless teens do) and sort-of healed. Ellie, a painter, has a wise woman hippie thing going on. She’s sympathetic to Jake, bringing him soup (soup??) when he needs a break from throwing the house detritus in the dumpster. She is also a total buttinski, giving Jake lots of unsolicited, and potentially damaging advice. For example, Why not surprise your father whom you haven’t heard from since he took off years ago when you were a kid?  After all, only nine out of ten of her suggested family reconciliations end in disaster!

Jake offers to introduce Rachel to his neighbor, but on their way across the street, they see her headed out on a date with a dashing man. I think he turned out to be a British professor. Rachel says she’ll just wait in her car until Ellie returns. What? I mean, Connecticut isn’t Manitoba, but it is December. And what if Ellie hooks up with the guy at his place — will she just sleep in her car? Brace yourself, because this is just the beginning of the illogic of The Noel Diary.

The filmmakers also demonstrate an astounding lack of comprehension of the freezing temperatures in northern latitudes and the distressing effect of said temperatures on the human body. Maybe this is because the movie was shot in Connecticut in the summer. You’ll quickly pick up on the CGI backgrounds, stock footage of a snowy road through forested land (probably from a drone in Canada) and an ungodly amount of fake snow. Back to Rachel and Jake…

Jake suggests that, instead of sitting in her freezing car all night watching the neighbor’s house, they share dinner at a local Italian restaurant. Jake is impressed when Rachel orders in Italian! She shares that she is a translator and going for her dream job at the UN. Later they head back to his place and she admires the Steinway. Jake modestly admits that he took piano lessons as a kid. She insists he play something and then –so weird– she starts belting out the lyrics like she is onstage at a jazz club. Of course, he’s a proficient pianist and she could be on Broadway. I was really beginning to root against these effortlessly perfect people. In these movies, no one ever says: I’m an alcoholic or I served time for fraud. Instead, we have Jake who has to clean out his mom’s house and Rachel who is waiting to hear if she gets her dream job.

The next day — in a total break from reality–they entirely clear out the hoarder mom’s house. They managed to do so even though they stopped at Buttinski’s house to find out about the possible mom. Buttinski doesn’t know the nanny’s name, but she says Jake’s dad would know. Why not visit him in Vermont? You can both get some answers.

Rachel tells Jake she’s leaving ASAP for Vermont and he offers to join her with his doggo. Obviously, only deluded women think a road trip with a virtual stranger makes sense. She doesn’t even know that he is a famous author — I guess she is too busy practicing her French verb conjugations to glance at the bestseller lists that he dominates. As they start out on their New England trek, Rachel asks Jake if it’s crazy to not call someone before showing up on a person’s doorstep with a major life question. Jake shrugs. Yes, Rachel it is crazy.

The production was too chintzy to actually go to Vermont or look at pictures of it online or talk to anyone who ever lived there. So, we get what looks like a polished-up version of Yankee Candle during Christmas shopping season. And a coating of fake snow everywhere. It only takes a few hours to get from coastal Connecticut to central Vermont, but for some reason they have to stay at multiple cute inns over a few nights.

During the car rides Rachel reads aloud from the diary that her nanny mother left behind years ago and that Jake found in the junk heap house. With a quavering voice, she begins, “I’m Noel, I’m seventeen.” You’ll spit your cocoa out from the hilarious melodrama–do you get it? ! This is literally THE Noel Diary.

There are lighter moments of bonding too. They stop at a village for the night and while Jake checks into an inn, Rachel pops into a bookstore to look for Jake’s book. (She finally Googled him to make sure he wasn’t a paroled killer.) When she asks the clerk for assistance, the woman gushes over Jake’s book. Easy on the eyes too, she practically gasps.

The next day they drive another forty-five minutes before stopping for the day. There is an all-out Christmas fest going on, full of carolers and snack places, just like in olden times when malls were bustling places to shop and stroll the kids around. Unfortunately, Vermont isn’t rich enough to throw these kinds of bashes, unlike its sister state of Connecticut, land of country clubs and Mercedes. In the biggest accuracy error, the village is having a nighttime OUTDOOR showing of It’s a Wonderful Life. If any place in Vermont ever tried this foolish idea, there would be frozen bodies found on the benches the next morning.

So… will lessons be learned and hearts healed?? Did I mention that Rachel has a fusty fiancé? Did I tell you that there was a tragedy in Jake’s childhood even before his dad left the family and his mom threw him out?

Do you care what happens to these perfect, yet sad people? If you enjoy good bad movies –unintentionally hilarious and inoffensive– give this a try. If you’d like to see a Christmas movie that’s actually good, watch:  It’s a Wonderful Life or Love Actually. If you are a glutton for punishment, check out Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey.

P.S.  Ava, Jake’s dog, is played with intelligence and sparkling charm by Skye, an Australian Shepherd. She is the best part of the movie.

Movie Loon’s Movie Review Shortcut:

Grade:   C-

Cut to the Chase:  If you’ll watch any Christmas-y romance movie and you can resist the non-holly jollyness of the characters’ predicaments, get together some cookies & cocoa, and gather family and friends to chuckle at the melodrama.

Humor Highlight: When Jake books rooms at an inn and the clerk tells him that she has two available, he says: In a rom-com, there would only be one room available.

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