The worst thing about Christmas In Conway is that Andy Garcia puts on a Southern accent in a Hallmark movie. He may not have had the most impressive career, but he is an Academy Award nominee—even if that was 20-plus years ago. But wait, maybe the worst thing about Christmas In Conway is instead that it features former teen star Mandy Moore playing a home-care hospice nurse, a role she seems extraordinarily unsuited for. Or perhaps it’s that Saturday Night Live alum Cheri Oteri stars as a nosy, shrewish neighbor who dampens everyone’s fun in ways that are supposed to be funny, but mostly read as cruel.
Of the four leads, only Mary-Louise Parker is beyond pity. Parker is comfortable playing a genteel Southern women—she got her big break in Fried Green Tomatoes—and she taps into her Carolina roots for this role. Conway is a small town in South Carolina with a familiar landscape of close-knit citizens harboring decades-long feuds and alliances. Christmas In Conway doesn’t get into the emotional landscape of the town as much as you might expect from the title—it’s comfortable just alluding to the well-worn territory of neighborhood drama.
The biggest small-town element of the film is that the world outside Conway doesn’t appear to exist. It’s a convenient bubble for the story to unfold in. Suzy Mayor, former teacher, has left the hospital and returned to her home in Conway to die, slowly, of an illness that’s never named. Moore is her hospice nurse, Natalie, who Suzy calls “pretty girl.” Garcia plays Suzy’s devoted husband, Duncan, who is naturally having a lot of trouble coming to terms with the situation. And Oteri plays the neighbor who can’t muster up a way to convey compassion even in the Mayors’ darkest hours.
Despite Suzy’s imminent death, Christmas In Conway is steadfastly upbeat, as is Suzy. The movie is a sentimental drama, but there’s more comedy than tragedy in its makeup. Oteri’s antics as the jealous neighbor are played for laughs, even though they aren’t funny and are outshone by how sharp Suzy is even at her sickest. The comedic set pieces are far too contrived to be legitimately humorous, but their true purpose is warming the heart, not yielding belly laughs.
Duncan decides to find a Ferris wheel and set it up in the Mayors’ backyard, so he and Suzy can go on a ride like they did the night he proposed. Duncan’s dream is not the central, driving force of the film like a Field Of Dreams fantasy—instead it’s just the only thing that happens, apart from Suzy’s unfolding illness. He finds one, 45 feet high, abandoned in an old amusement park; but how is he going to get it home and put it together? What about neighborhood permits and the attention of the community? Only time will tell. Moore’s character is shoehorned into the narrative as the naïve observer of the town’s antics, and as a vehicle for optimism. She’s a stranger to Conway, but as soon as she shows up, she’s making eyes at Tommy (Riley Smith, a.k.a. Todd from Freaks And Geeks), the landscape artist working next door. Tommy is, in turn, inserted into the Mayors’ lives, as a former student of Suzy’s who stole something from Duncan once. Will Duncan forgive Tommy, and let him help with the Ferris wheel? Well, what do you think?
It’s a slow and meaningless film—largely meaningless anyway. Hallmark wants to take its tragedies one at a time. The film is especially interested in tragedy that comes bound up in true love and any sweeping romance will do. Despite the narrowness of their roles and the sodden-cardboard appeal of the plot, Garcia and Parker are both powerful as lovers nearing the end of their run. There is nothing easy or satisfactory about a loved one dying, and it’s hard to push back on a film that’s offering a window into that experience. Even if it’s presumably so Hallmark can make its viewers cry over a film that appeals purely to a glittering idea of what love, death, Christmas, and South Carolina are truly like. It’s a fantasy, and as Hallmark is well aware, we need fantasies. But a fantasy that doesn’t leave Conway is a limited indeed.
Director: John Kent Harrison
Debuts: Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern on ABC
Format: made-for-TV movie