Excruciatingly "inspirational" ensembler about a bunch of "little people" who find unexpected happiness in time for the holidays, Chazz Palminteri's directorial debut is a bad TV movie with bigscreen aspirations. Could snag this a domestic distrib, but dull and utterly contrived tale won't pass muster with even the most charitable audiences.

“Noel” goes down like sour eggnog on Christmas Eve. An excruciatingly “inspirational” ensembler about a bunch of “little people” who find unexpected happiness in time for the holidays, Chazz Palminteri’s directorial debut is a bad TV movie with bigscreen aspirations. It’s possible the moderately starry cast, along with a curiously unbilled Robin Williams in a fairly sizable role, could snag this Canadian-shot indie a domestic distrib, but dull and utterly contrived tale won’t pass muster with even the most charitable audiences.

In the umpteenth attempt to recapture some of the magic of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” scripter David Hubbard (“Delivering Milo”) has fabricated some quickly recognizable characters and connected them in ways that don’t convince for a moment.

Penelope Cruz and Paul Walker, in a pairing that dismally flunks Screen Chemistry 101, play Nina and Mike, whose upcoming nuptials are threatened by the latter’s uncontrollable temper and jealousy, issues that likely would have surfaced before now.

When Nina stomps out on Christmas Eve, Mike finds his attention diverted by Artie (Alan Arkin), a diner chef who looks at him funny and insists he must talk to him at once. Despite Mike’s best efforts, he can’t shake the older man, who has a lot of trouble blurting out what’s on his mind.

As an older version of Laura Linney’s character in “Love Actually,” Susan Sarandon plays Rose, an outwardly cheerful children’s book editor with no kids of her own who’s burdened with a hospitalized mother with Alzheimer’s. Incredibly, Rose is invited out on a Christmas Eve date by the office hunk (Daniel Sunjata), but when she backs out of a hot time at the last second, instead of just going to sleep she hits the streets, wandering like a homeless woman until she unaccountably walks right into the upscale apartment of Nina’s family.

Even more unaccountably, Nina leaves the warm embrace of her family dinner to accompany the strange older woman to a neighborhood bar. Later, Rose takes to the streets again, venturing in a vaguely suicidal mood to the waterfront, where she encounters the one and only Robin Williams in the guise of a man who just checked out of 20 years in the priesthood after a loss of faith.

Then there’s orphan hustler Jules (Marcus Thomas), who goes to painful lengths to remain in a hospital emergency room all night in order to recapture memories of the happiest moment in his life, when he was 14.

Things only get worse from here, as these stories of quiet desperation on the cusp of an enforced feel-good holiday are all given manipulative upticks to suggest that hope, and even mini-miracles, can visit even the most forlorn of lives.

From the hopelessly askew time frame to the utterly unmotivated relationships that spring up for dramatic convenience alone, nothing rings true.

Actors all buy into the cloying sentimentality of the piece, to their peril. Helmer Palminteri pops up briefly looking like a caveman as an underworld nasty.

Pic has an attractive glow thanks to Russell Carpenter’s high-sheen widescreen lensing, and score offers up one catchy tune over the long-in-coming end credits.

Noel

Production

A Convex Group/Neverland Films/Zvi Howard Rosenman production. Produced by Al Corley, Bart Rosenblatt, Eugene Musso, Rosenman. Executive producers, Jonathan Dana, Jeff Arnold, Dan Adler. Co-producers, James Mulay, Matt Luber. Directed by Chazz Palminteri. Screenplay, David Hubbard.

Crew

Camera (color, Panavision widescreen), Russell Carpenter; editor, Susan E. Morse; music, Alan Menken; music supervisors, Amanda Scheer Demme, Buck Damon; production designer, Carol Spier; art director, Andre Chamberland; costume designer, Renee April; sound (Dolby Digital), Patrick Rousseau; line producer, Madeline Gavant; associate producers, Michael Klastorin, Kim Olsen; assistant director, Martin Walters; casting, Billy Hopkins, Suzanne Smith, Kerry Barden, Nadia Rona, Rosina Bucci, Margery Simkin. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation), Sept. 13, 2004. Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Nina - Penelope Cruz Rose - Susan Sarandon Mike - Paul Walker Artie - Alan Arkin Jules - Marcus Thomas
With: John Doman, Daniel Sunjata, Sonny Marinelli, Billy Porter, Carmen Ejogo.

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