Noel

Actor Chazz Palminteri lined up an amazing cast for Noel, his feature directorial debut. He's got Susan Sarandon as a New York book editor dealing with her Alzheimer's-stricken mother, Robin Williams as the mysterious stranger who hangs out in the hospital room next to Sarandon's mom, Paul Walker as a jealous cop who crowds his possibly pregnant fiancée Penélope Cruz, and Alan Arkin as a diner waiter who thinks Walker is the reincarnation of his late wife. On Christmas Eve, these five characters and a handful of others plunge into despair, meet each other, and eventually learn the true meaning of Christmas. But no matter how good the actors or how sweet the premise, Noel's characters never become more than characters. Everything they say and do happens because they're in a movie.

Noel's artificiality isn't an inherent problem—after all, there's nothing especially real about Miracle On 34th Street, and that's the greatest Christmas movie ever made. Still, does Walker have to be so insanely jealous, and his partner Sonny Marinelli so dense, and Sarandon's personal history so tragic, and Arkin's conviction so manic? And what's up with Marcus Thomas, whose character tries to get admitted to a hospital so he relive his best Christmas ever, when he broke his hand at 14? Can't any of the people in this movie really see themselves?

Of course they can't, until the moment in the film where that revelation will be most miraculous. That wan formula makes Noel hard to stomach. Not even a twinkly, softly lit Montreal—standing in for Manhattan—can produce enough Christmas spirit to overcome scenes in which people hear overwrought speeches about why their lives matter. Palminteri and screenwriter David Hubbard desperately want the crazy misfits in their movie to move the audience, but they're all too cracked to inspire empathy. There's no holiday magic, just famous faces playing people who don't exist.

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