Screenwriter Richard Curtis is a cinema colossus with nothing left to prove: he reinvented the romcom with transatlantic classics like Four Weddings, Notting Hill and The Tall Guy; he re-energised charitable giving with Comic Relief; and even those of us who never signed up to Love Actually concede the dark power of the Emma Thompson-crying scene. But we really do not need this new Christmas film from him (he writes, Sam Boyd directs), an unremittingly awful, bafflingly terrible and defanged bit of seasonal gibberish: a fantasy comedy which forgets to put in gags and which cheats its own narrative rules. Watching it is like trailing around a year-round Christmas market in March.
Paapa Essiedu plays a chap with the quirky name of Bernard Bottle, employed in New York (cue Christmassy shots of people skating in Rockefeller Plaza) as an assistant in a very posh art auction house, run by a heartless meanie called Flaxman (Alan Cumming). Flaxman declines to let poor Bernard go home at knocking-off time to attend his daughter’s birthday – very close to Christmas incidentally – and loads more work on him. Bernard timidly submits.
But Bernard is not exactly a Bob Cratchit figure and he certainly doesn’t have Cratchit’s money worries. He, wife Julie (Denée Benton) and daughter Eve (Jordyn McIntosh) live in a handsome New York apartment and Julie’s family is apparently loaded. But Julie is furious with him for missing Eve’s birthday, and she takes their daughter and leaves. Poor Bernard miserably looks at the dusty old jewellery box that he’s had for ages (and which he unconvincingly tried to give Eve as a last-minute present), idly polishes it and – whoosh! – a wacky genie comes out, played by Melissa McCarthy.
This genie can grant any number of wishes, but she has to hear the instructions clearly; she can’t change people’s basic feelings and she can’t take you back in time. So … can she pull off the Christmas miracle of saving Bernard’s marriage? Well, no one minds a bit of predictable cheesiness, but McCarthy is just so completely subdued in this film and is never allowed to let rip. It’s as if everyone involved is terrified of actually making people laugh in case that gives offence somehow, or disrupts the algorithmic calculation that theoretically makes this a palatable piece of content. The whole thing is as bland as cellophane.
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