Synopsis: When Jesse gets dumped right before the holidays by her boyfriend Shawn, his parents convince her to still spend Christmas with them and Shawn’s handsome cousin while Shawn is away.
Stars: Justin Long, Brittany Snow, JoAnna Garcia Swisher, Julia Duffy, George Wendt, Alex Moffat
Director: Clare Niederpruem
Running Length: 88 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: As the season’s change, weather-wise, so do they shift for films in our household as well. January through March are often “Happy Hibernate Days,” where the awards contenders get watched, and the epics from the classic cinema I’ve long neglected get caught up on. April and May are “Spring Cleaning” to tie up any loose ends of binged TV/limited series you may not have finished. Then coming out of “summer movie time” from June to August, a brief free period in September before October’s “scary movie season” fills my horror cup. On November 1 and through the end of the year, Christmas/holiday fare keeps us entertained.
During the pandemic, I went all-in on the Hallmark/Lifetime channel Christmas movies which followed the same formula and have been the target of many jokes over the years. Yes, they make these films on an endless assembly line, shifting the same actors and plot details around. You’re going to experience the most minimal of stakes, and rarely will any movie produced deviate from the ordained protocol (seriously, I’ve read articles that confirm there are network-mandated do’s and don’ts down to clothing), so there’s an element of comfort when you tune in…if that’s your bag. It wasn’t my bag for many years but cooped up with nothing to do and running out of options, I learned to appreciate these minor distractions for the major entertainment possibilities they could offer.
Fortunately, films are back in a relatively decent swing now, so I can afford to be a bit more discerning with what I watch, so I’m always on the lookout for a Christmas/holiday movie that takes a different approach. I’ll sit through a charming one like the Lindsay Lohan starring Falling for Christmas on Netflix, but Christmas with You, starring Freddie Prinze Jr. as week later on the same service, felt sugary by comparison. Now, we have Christmas with the Campbells, premiering on AMC+ and co-written by Vince Vaughn (The Cell), which aims to add a little salty spiked spice to the usual sugar concoction we’re used to. The result is an unusually entertaining comedy that lays on the ribald laughs just enough not to be exasperating, taking an adults-only approach to holiday cheer.
Photographer and Christmas enthusiast Jesse (Brittany Snow, X) is looking forward to another holiday spent with her boyfriend’s parents in Ketchum, Idaho. Apparently, without a family or any friends of her own (typical for these types of set-ups), Jessie is stunned when Shawn (Alex Moffat, The Opening Act) up and dumps her right before they are set to leave. He’s off to NYC for a job interview that will put him on the fast track, and he doesn’t feel Jesse is the right fit for his desired jet-set lifestyle. Further, Shawn doesn’t plan on going home for the holidays, and Jesse already has a non-refundable ticket…so his mom (Julia Duffy, Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker) tells her to keep her plans and come to Idaho for Christmas anyway.
Arriving at the home of her ex-almost-in-laws, Jesse quickly feels right at home, though it’s hard not to have someone to bounce off the thinly veiled raunchy behavior between Shawn’s mom and dad (George Wendt, Gung Ho). As Christmas gets closer, Jesse catches the eye of Shawn’s visiting cousin, David (Justin Long, Barbarian), and develops a little rivalry for his attention with a local vixen (JoAnna Garcia Swisher, The Internship). When Shawn shows up unexpectedly, plans for a simple holiday get thrown into chaos, giving Jesse second thoughts over her plans for the future and questioning her present choices.
Strangely, I started watching another holiday film directed by Clare Niedepruem the same day I watched her Christmas with the Campbells. A Royal Corgi Christmas was touted as a big film for Hallmark and, do keep this between us, I had to turn it off before the first commercial break because I knew it was going to be a dog. Given more of a runway to have fun (and inject R-rated humor throughout), Niedepruem can let her actors run free, which makes Christmas with the Campbells consistently surprising. It’s not astounding work, but if you’ve watched enough of these movies at any point, you’ll appreciate how the formula is given a sanguine pinch in all the right places.
You could see how this potentially started as a project intended for the big screen. That’s perhaps why there’s an overall sense the film wants to be bigger than it wound up being. The three principal members of the love triangle (Jesse/Shawn/David) could have been played by any combo of A-list stars, not that the cast here doesn’t play their parts with skill. Snow, in particular, is terrific. Resisting the urge to over/underplay the role, she finds the balance immediately, which makes the character one to root for and side with. Moffat draws on his “Guy Who Just Bought a Boat” character from SNL a bit too much but clearly should be working in film more. Long has had a big year already (catch House of Darkness for a chilly shiver), and while his role is a bit weird (the accent!), it’s appropriately charming. The MVP here is Duffy, a 7-time Emmy nominee for Newhart; she’s excelled in bit parts over the past three decades but is handed a swell role and runs with it.
A Christmas movie you can watch after you finish decorating and while you’re enjoying your third or fourth glass of eggnog, Christmas with the Campbells does set out to break the mold of your traditional holiday fare. It pushes the boundaries of the format by being a little more vulgar than you’re used to but not skimping on the usual elements you’re expecting. The performances are on the mark, as is the message and heart. Check it out and be prepared to find a surprise or two while you’re at it.