Judge Kerry Birmingham cautions, when giving a grandpa for Christmas, make sure the package has air holes.
Wishes do come true.
As vilified as It's A Wonderful Life was for its ubiquity on television during the holiday season, there's a reason it was the go-to Christmas movie for decades (before the current ownership limited it to just a few airings a year): Capra's classic hit all the right notes, weaving warm fuzzies throughout what's a much grimmer narrative than most people seem to remember (nobody seems to recall just how hard he was on ol' Uncle Billy). Holiday films by their nature have to be on the hopeful side-there's that whole "spirit of the season" thing to worry about—but it's difficult to put forward that message of peace on Earth, goodwill toward men without presenting it in the blandest possible terms. It's the challenge faced by virtually every Christmas-themed movie since the dawn of man (or broadcast television): make it simple, make it sweet, like a Hallmark card. It's no surprise, then, that the Hallmark Channel brings us A Grandpa for Christmas: simple, sweet, and the latest contender in the eternal fight to make love and compassion story points that won't bore you to tears.
Facts of the Case
Bert O'Riley (Ernest Borgnine, From Here to Eternity) is a retired actor enjoying his golden years. He has a comfortable routine hanging out with his old acting buddies (including his agent) and looks forward to selling his suburban Los Angeles home and moving into a home for elderly actors. Unknown to Bert, however, his long-estranged daughter has just had a car accident that's left her in a coma, leaving him sole guardian of Becca (Juliette Goglia, Joan of Arcadia), the granddaughter he never knew he had. Suddenly thrust into the role of family man during the holidays with a willful, precocious granddaughter, Bert finds his comfortable life turned upside down.
The synopsis of A Grandpa for Christmas reads like a recipe for heartwarming: a curmudgeonly grandfather who relearns what love means from a spirited youngster? When we find out that Bert hasn't put up a Christmas tree in the decades since his marriage dissolved on a Christmas Eve, there's little doubt that Bert's heart will have grown three sizes and his plans to sell his cozy home might be derailed. Like virtually any holiday film (excepting those going out of their way not to be so and playing off their conventions, like Bad Santa), the outcome is never in question. Christmas movies are about reassurances, reaffirming thoughts of family and community and generally fostering a sense of warmth and well-being-pretty much all of which are concepts that don't lend themselves well to traditional story conflict; contentment is the enemy of drama. When throwing a red shirt in with the whites is an actual point of conflict in a movie (spoiler: they buy new clothes), you know that the battles the characters face will be of the tame, family-friendly variety.
A Grandpa for Christmas is a movie that knows what it is: you're not going to cast nonagenarian acting legend Ernest Borgnine as a grumpy grandfather and go for anything less than the viewer's heart. Borgnine, cast as lovable lummoxes for a significant portion of his career, has the role down pat, guffawing with air-headed affability in the face of his own rudeness and exasperation in dealing with a smart-alecky middle-schooler. Borgnine's a victim of his own outsized persona here; at this point he has nothing to prove as an actor, but he's too comfortable in his skin and too damn likable to sell Bert's alleged grudge against the holiday season. Head to head with Borgnine, Juliette Goglia, all freckles and earnestness, is in the role Lindsay Lohan would have played a dozen years ago: sweet, savvy, letting her precociousness cover a general fear of the grown-up world.
It's a nice pairing, the perfect duality of staged animosity and thinly-veiled hearts of gold that are the engine of movies where we're waiting for the inevitable (romantic comedies also like this trick). The plot chugs along in this way: there's a heartfelt family reunion just around the corner, but there needs to be some faint catharsis and the world's easiest reconciliation along the way. When stage-shy Becca gets a role in the school Christmas pageant, it's a given that Bert and his gang of jovial showbiz retirees-including instantly recognizable TV vets like Jamie Farr (M*A*S*H*) and Katherine Helmond (Who's the Boss?) in some nice bits of stunt casting-will lend a hand. There's even the suspicion that somebody might learn a lesson on, say, what it means to be a family. Family-film crises are strewn about shamelessly—Will Becca make friends? Can Bert learn to change for this young whipper-snapper?—such that the familiarity of these plot devices become as comforting as the film's feel-good message. There's not a whole lot that's compelling in A Grandpa for Christmas; it never puts its characters in a low enough spot for them struggle out from-even the coma patient, Bert's daughter, forgives her father so readily it might be the result of her concussion. Head trauma may, in fact, be the preferable lens through which to view the easy answers and mild conflicts faced by Bert and Becca.
Sound quality is nominal and unremarkable; picture quality suffers from minor aliasing but is otherwise fine. There are no bonus features—not even the usual raft of obtrusive trailers—and subtitles are nonexistent.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
"Contentment is the enemy of drama?" It might qualify as an over-analysis to try and break down such a sweet-natured family film in stark us-and-them terms. Cynicism is all too easy, especially when presented with such a large target as this one, but the Christmas movie genre can certainly do worse than a movie by Borgnine, the people that made that card you gave your mom last year, and a host of other folks you've never heard of. As a warm, sympathetic, and inoffensive bit of holiday cheer, it should do its job for those looking for a movie that adequately suits the smell of gingerbread and chestnuts roasting on an open fire.
A Grandpa for Christmas doesn't aspire to classic status. It just advances a basic and genuine idea of peace, goodwill, and forgiveness, for an audience predisposed to like that idea to begin with. If it's a bit dull, a bit prosaic, a bit predictable, it's no less an unabashedly optimistic, prototypical Christmas movie. It won't be replacing A Christmas Story in constant rotation on cable this holiday season, but it's an adequate cockle-warmer for those not too picky about that sort of thing.
It narrowly avoids the naughty list by being way too nice. Curse you, Borgnine!
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