Our investigative series on Montreal-shot movies continues in a holiday vein with this cheesefest from unlikely director Chazz Palminteri.

Alex Rose’s Made in MTL is a series exploring films shot and/or set in Montreal. Seizing some holiday spirit for this edition, Alex looks at Christmas cheesefest/Chazz Palminteri directorial debut Noel (2004).

Does Montreal play itself? Once again, Montreal stands in for the Big Apple. Once again, Montreal looks almost nothing like New York. In order to seamlessly merge the two, there’s some really bad greenscreen of Susan Sarandon standing against the New York skyline.

Notable local talent: Former MusiquePlus VJ Sonia Benezra pops up briefly as Penelope Cruz’s aunt, while a pre-Twilight Rachelle Lefevre plays a prostitute or party girl or whatever (any character that’s not one of the five leads is pretty ill-defined).

Most egregious local landmark: The Sun Life building continues its unbroken streak of appearances in Made in MTL subjects, sighted briefly in the background of a couple of shots. In an equally familiar twist, almost every scene is shot south of René-Levesque, where characters with resolutely middle-class jobs, like Paul Walker’s policeman, live in enormous Old Port lofts. A stretch of Ste-Famille in the McGill ghetto serves as Penelope Cruz’s family home.

In the world of Christmas movies, there’s absolutely nothing worse than being alone on Christmas. It’s always the single most painful hurdle to overcome; it’s never the other crushing problems that may loom the 51 other weeks of the year, and it’s impossible for these sad, lonely types to hang out with the millions of people who don’t actually celebrate Christmas.

Tough-guy actor Chazz Palminteri improbably made his feature debut with Noel, a criss-crossing tale of the world’s saddest people dealing with the world’s saddest Christmas. It’s like Paul Haggis’s Crash if the titular crash was a collision of every Hallmark movie of the last 10 years.

Rose (Susan Sarandon) is a spinster-ish children’s book editor (a childless one, oh tragedy of tragedies) who has all but ignored her social life to take care of her catatonic mother. Mike (Walker) is a temperamental NYPD cop whose upcoming marriage to Nina (Penelope Cruz) is threatened by his unbridled jealousy and tendency to beat the crap out of any dude around her; meanwhile, he also appears to be the reincarnation of the dead wife of a deli owner (Alan Arkin). Two-bit slacker Jules (Marcus Thomas) wants nothing more than to relive the Christmas party the hospital threw for him when he broke his nose at the age of 12, so he arranges for a weird hobo (Palminteri) to break his hand.

As you’ve probably guessed, Noel is so fucking cheesy it might well be adapted from a Norman Rockwell (or, even worse, Thomas Kinkade) painting. It’s so cheesy that it finds the space to shoehorn in a cameo from Robin Williams in full doe-eyed Patch Adams mode. Preposterous contrivances abound as characters quite literally stumble into each other’s lives, and speak in purple prose that would seem more appropriate monogrammed next to a picture of a little house on your grandma’s wall.

What Noel has over your average Hallmark movie of the week is that surprisingly stacked cast. The best these types of movies can usually manage is a Rob Lowe or maybe Ed Asner as the mall Santa; Noel manages to get absolutely decent performances from Sarandon, Arkin and Cruz (the less said about Walker’s constipated emoting the better). They certainly can’t completely sell the greeting-card dialogue or the preposterousness of certain situations, but they help.

It would be extremely foolish to assume that a Christmas movie could be made without at least a bit of old-fashioned, sappy Capra-corn; after all, even the more acidic Christmas comedies like Bad Santa tug at the heart strings a couple of times. Noel, on the other hand, is 102 minutes of misty-eyed, saccharine bullshit, competently built and presented for an audience that will inevitably find their way back to It’s a Wonderful Life as they do every year. ■


Alex Rose explores the worst of cinema on his podcast and blog, Why Does it Exist? @whydoesitblog on Twitter.

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