Lionsgate // 2008 // 103 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 27th, 2010
Love is the brightest light of all.
"PAINT THE LIGHT!"
The year is 1977, and young Thomas Kinkade (Jared Padelecki, Supernatural) has returned from college to spend a few weeks with his family over the Christmas holiday. Thomas is an aspiring young artist, and for years he has turned to his mentor and neighbor Glen (Peter O'Toole, Venus) for advice and inspiration. However, things aren't so great in the little town of Placerville, CA these days. Glen is suffering from the onset of dementia. There's a lot of tension among some of the more influential town leaders. Thomas' mother Maryanne (Marcia Gay Harden, The Mist) is on the verge of losing her home due to financial difficulties.
One day, Thomas is offered a job. Ernie (Chris Elliot, Dance Flick) offers to pay Thomas $500 if he can paint a mural depicting Placerville and its residents before Christmas Eve. Thomas accepts with some hesitation, initially feeling that such obviously commercial work is beneath a true artist. Even so, as time passes and his work on the mural progresses, Thomas begins to discover that he has a unique opportunity to do something special and make a difference in the lives of everyone around him. Maybe, just maybe, he can find a way to save the family cottage, too.
Even if you have little to no knowledge of the art world, odds are you've heard of Thomas Kinkade. He's quite possibly the most popular painter in the world at the moment; someone whose inspirational works elicit "oohs" and "aahs" from many. I know plenty of people who love Thomas Kinkade. "Oh, I'm not really an artsy person, but I just love Thomas Kinkade," they say, as if Kinkade's brilliance is so remarkable that it transcends their general inability to appreciate art. Personally, I've never really been a fan. His art seems so blatantly commercial and predictably inspirational; the painting equivalent of a Celine Dion song. However, what I think of Kinkade's paintings is neither here nor there; I'm a film critic, not an art critic. I only mention my feelings because Thomas Kinkade's Christmas Cottage very much mirrors Kinkade's personal style in the way it's crafted.
Do you recall the Dave Chappelle sketch in which Chappelle imagined what sort of vanity project might be produced if he made a film about himself ala Antwone Fisher? Thomas Kinkade's Christmas Cottage sort of feels like the real-world version of that. The film was produced by Kinkade and his wife Nanette. Amusingly, this leads to a film that essentially depicts young Thomas as a benevolent saint, coming home to save Christmas and spread the joy of generic paintings to the world. It's a cinematic self-portrait devoted to the task of pinpointing the time in which Kinkade found his greatness, which is somewhat unsurprising when you consider the painter's past admissions of vanity (what with his "ritual territory marking" incidents and such).
But let's set all that aside for a moment and forget the fact that Kinkade was so personally involved in the creation of this biopic (admittedly hard to do, given that he also narrates the film). Does the movie work on its own terms? Kinda-sorta, if you like this sort of thing. It's a recycled Christmas story that plays like a lightweight variation on It's a Wonderful Life, allowing things to slowly become rather despondent before the whole town (inspired by Kinkade's magical mural) bands together to save the day. You've seen this film before, and while Thomas Kinkade's Christmas Cottage isn't a classic, it's by no means one of the worst holiday flicks I've seen (I'm still recovering from that awful Christmas Town movie I had to sit through last year).
The high points are the scenes featuring Peter O'Toole, who transcends the material and delivers some impressively heartfelt stuff during his limited screen time. Even when he rails against expressionism and art that says something about the artist rather than about the world, he's persuasive and convincing. Things get even better when Ed Asner (Up) pops by, giving the two veterans a chance to play off each other a bit. The rest of the performances are merely okay, with Marcia Gay Harden effectively essaying an atypically subdued character and Jared Padelecki coasting through a vanilla role that offers him no challenges whatsoever.
The worst moments are those that unpersuasively attempt to inject comedy into the proceedings. Two subplots are devoted to providing wacky comic relief. The first is essentially an abbreviated version of the Danny DeVito/Matthew Broderick film Deck the Halls, with two cantankerous neighbors desperately attempting to outdo each other in the decorations department. The second involves the staging of a local nativity play, which runs into all sorts of "comic" complications: Mary is played by the town tart, one of the wise men breaks out in a rash due to his fake beard, the wax paintings of animals melt in the spotlight, the organist is always playing the wrong songs, and on and on. This stuff feels tremendously phony and doesn't fit with the rest of the film at all, but the real problem is that it just isn't one bit funny.
For a while, I was convinced the film's worst subplot would be the one involving Thomas' father Bill (Richard Burgi, Desperate Housewives). When Bill first arrives on the scene, he's a wild cartoon of a character; a chain-smoking, hard-drinking womanizer who gives his sons a carton of old porn magazines for Christmas (no, really!). Then he drives away at a reckless speed, cackling and throwing firecrackers out the window. I'm not making this up. However, as the film progresses it allows Bill to turn into a real human being; an impressively even-handed portrait of a flawed man. Unfortunately, that's about the only surprise the film has to offer.
The 1080p/1.78:1 hi-def transfer is respectable enough, though the film was shot in a rather soft manner to give it that warm, Christmas-y look. The detail suffers a little as a result at times, but not enough to merit significant complaint. Flesh tones are accurate, blacks are nice and deep and the bright palette is conveyed quite nicely. Audio is also solid, though this is a mostly understated track dominated by dialogue and a schmaltzy Aaron Zigman score. It's not particularly immersive or attention-grabbing, but it gets the job done. Supplements are recycled from the previous DVD release: an audio commentary with director Michael Campus and Kinkade, an interview with Kinkade, a trio of featurettes ("Building the Christmas Cottage," "On the Set with Ed Aknik" and "Christmas with the Cast') and some deleted scenes.
Even if you can get past the irritating nature of witnessing Thomas Kinkade pay homage to himself, it may be tough to get past the film's numerous artistic missteps. The Blu-ray is solid.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Deleted Scenes