Review: ‘Messy Christmas’

A Christmas Eve dinner for a motley extended family turns into a comic nightmare as secrets and lies spill out in "Messy Christmas."

A Christmas Eve dinner for a motley extended family turns into a comic nightmare as secrets and lies spill out in “Messy Christmas.” Sparky remake of the 1999 Swedish comedy “In Bed With Santa” sits comfortably in its new German setting, thanks to ace playing by a name cast led by Martina Gedeck, as a loving mother who invites all her ex-husbands and their wives, and Heino Ferch, as her tightly wrapped fourth spouse. Teutonic equivalent of a Thanksgiving ensembler is a neat item for film weeks, with niche theatrical chances and strong cable potential. Surprisingly, pic opened softly late November.

Middle-class couple Eva (Gedeck) and Jan (Ferch) have a lusty sex life and four young kids — one by Jan’s ex, Eva (Rosa Enskat), and one each from Eva’s three exes: bluff Gunnar (Andreas Windhuis), easygoing Andi (Roeland Wiesnekker) and serious Erich (Rainer Sellien).

Already burdened by the presence of Eva’s mom (Petra Kelling), Jan asks his wife why she’s doing so much cooking and is astounded, to put it lightly, to hear her surprise guest list.

Hardly before he has a chance to protest, the front doorbell rings, and in short order the house is filled with forced bonhomie. As well as all the exes, the invitees also include Erich’s neurotic wife, Pauline (Meret Becker), and Andi’s cynical spouse, Rita (Jasmin Tabatabai).

A pre-dinner male get-together in the sauna, with everyone talking about Eva, doesn’t help Jan’s sense of growing suffocation. Afterward, he privately confesses to the straight-talking Rita that he’s had a vasectomy; worse, he hasn’t told Eva, who desperately wants a kid by him.

When, during dinner, Eva announces she’s pregnant, a flabbergasted Jan starts to suspect Eva has had sex with an ex, and sets out to discover the culprit. However, more surprises are on the way — and not just for Eva and Jan.

Fourth outing by director Vanessa Jopp (“Forget America,” “Engel & Joe”) is her first full-on comedy, and she keeps the tone light and the pacing brisk, helped by Loy Wesselburg’s jaunty score, which almost slips into Nino Rota-like mode, and Brigitta Tauchner’s spry editing. Though pic bills itself a “polynuclear family comedy,” it never gets hot and heavy about social issues.

Film is rarely laugh-out-loud, though the running joke of some new neighbors (Bjarne Ingmar Maedel, Feo Aladag) with an adopted Kenyan baby and a giant cactus generate some of the best belly laughs. Among the guests, Tabatabai gets many of the best, sourest lines, and both Wiesnekker and Windhuis stand out among Eva’s exes. A late-on cameo by Eva Loebau as a hysterical interloper tops the icing on the chaotic cake.

Ultimately, however, pic is Gedeck and Ferch’s. Former is well cast as the ever-loving Eva, for whom family is a broad, inclusive church; latter turns a reactive role into a leading one through sheer screen presence.

Tech package on the largely studio-shot pic is thoroughly pro, sans extra gloss, with Hans Fromm’s mobile camera making the most of the confined setting. English title cleverly reflects the original German one, which puns on the double meaning of “schoene Bescherung” as “beautiful Christmas present” and “real mess.”

Messy Christmas

Germany

Production

An X Verleih release of an X Film Creative Pool production, in association with WDR, Arte, Arte France Cinema, Label Tele. (International sales: Beta Film, Munich.) Produced by Manuela Stehr. Executive producer, Ulli Neumann. Co-producer, Francois Tron. Directed by Vanessa Jopp. Screenplay, Richard Reitinger, Monika Rolfner, Marc Terjung, based on the motion picture "In Bed With Santa" directed by Kjell Sundvall/screenplay by Rolfner, Eva Callenbo, Harald Hamrell.

Crew

Camera (color), Hans Fromm; editor, Brigitta Tauchner; music, Loy Wesselburg; art director, Peter Menne; costume designer, Guido Maria Kretschmer; sound (Dolby Digital), Kai Luede, Martin Steyer; associate producers, Juergen Fabritius, Borje Hansson; assistant director, Barbara Miersch; casting, Simone Baer. Reviewed at Kino in der KulturBrauerei 2, Berlin, Nov. 26, 2007. Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Martina Gedeck, Heino Ferch, Meret Becker, Jasmin Tabatabai, Roeland Wiesnekker, Rainer Sellien, Andreas Windhuis, Rosa Enskat, Matthias Matschke, Ursula Doll, Alexandra Neldel, Petra Kelling, Bjarne Ingmar Maedel, Feo Aladag, Eva Loebau.
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