NBC’s production notes boldly proclaim that “Secret Santa” is “destined to become a holiday classic,” representing the kind of balls-to-the-wall hyperbole that’s hard not to admire. In the case of something this schmaltzy and tenaciously lightweight, critics can either nitpick or check their brains at the door and give in — as many viewers are willingly doing this holiday season, based on ratings for some recent made-fors. About the best to be said is no one will be harmed in the viewing of this film, with the possible exception of a sugar overdose.
Jennie Garth — suddenly looking very much like Trista Rehn, demonstrating what this “The Bachelor” wedding nonsense hath wrought — plays Rebecca, a struggling Indianapolis reporter dumped by her boyfriend Ryan (Aha! Coincidence?) right before Christmas. Unnaturally alone again, she grudgingly takes the assignment of trekking to the Indiana town of Hamden, where a “Secret Santa” has for years been anonymously lavishing fabulous gifts on needy residents.
Rebecca quickly decides the benefactor must be the elusive “town’s richest man,” Carter (Steven Eckholdt), but her pursuit of the scoop gradually begins to melt her hardened little heart. Beyond deciphering whether Carter really is the donor, the question arises whether she wants to out whoever it is and spoil the sense of wonder his do-gooding showers on the idyllic little burg.
OK, so the mystery isn’t exactly equivalent to “Rosebud” in “Citizen Kane,” with the pseudo-St. Nick’s identity being little more than an excuse to introduce Rebecca to a parade of warm and fuzzy characters. The roster includes nursing-home director Russell (Charlie Robinson) and resident Miss Ruthie (Barbara Billingsley), the “Leave It to Beaver” mom who, disappointingly, never begins talking jive as she did in “Airplane!”
Writer Robert Tate Miller and director Ian Barry certainly don’t hold back in the emotional string-pulling department, with Alan Williams’ Hallmark-ad score pounding each point home in case anyone misses it. Put it this way: When the plot features an adorably precocious kid in a wheelchair, it’s not like you’re leaving much to chance.
Now starring in the WB sitcom “What I Like About You,” Garth is perky and engaging enough — in a Mary Tyler Moore sort of way — as the conflicted journalist, though the story probably could benefit from some kind of jeopardy. Even “Miracle on 34th Street” had the nasty store worker and the trial.
The only group that even remotely comes across poorly, in fact, is journalists, killjoys that we are. Carter, through the kid, even disparages our appearance, telling Rebecca she’s “too pretty to be a newspaper reporter.” Harrumph. Well, there goes this rave review down the toilet.
Still, if anything is critic-proof and should be, it’s treacly holiday fare where people learn the true meaning of Christmas, as Rebecca does — after initially dismissing the story of Secret Santa as “so tired I’m getting’ sleepy just thinkin’ about it.”
Tired is right, but for those seeking something innocuous to put them to sleep after a grueling day at the mall, “Secret Santa” probably delivers the goods.