Let’s get a few things out of the way first. First, I do not hate Christmas. Take away the rampant commercialization and repugnant consumerism, and you still have a time of year to be thankful, to be hopeful, and to push yourself to be just a little more decent.
Yes, even in 2020.
It’s Christmas movies I don’t like. Specifically, the Hallmark Christmas movie sub-genre. If you don’t know these kinds of films, trust me when I tell you, you know them. A person from the bustling big city is sent to a charming and almost completely white small town. They meet a person of the opposite sex* who ultimately Helps Them Learn The True Meaning Of Christmas. Along the way, there will be predictable misunderstandings, strictly PG-rated romance, and an almost total lack of acknowledgment of the Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Pagan, and Zoroastrianism holidays that also take place in December.
If you’re someone who genuinely gets enjoyment out of these films, it would be churlish of me to deny you your happiness. Glad you like’em! Mazel tov! I find them to be not only interchangeable but also fertile ground for mockery. I’m not the only one who feels this way, and the makers of the new comedy Cup of Cheer have gone after the genre with a machete.
A quick side note is the part of the review where I’ll take a few paragraphs to sum up the film’s plot. However, this being a spoof movie, the plot is merely a rickety framework with which to hang a gaggle of jokes. While you might read the plot description and think, “Holy Christ, is he writing this drunk?” I’ll remind you that it’s now 9:12 AM, and I never start drinking in earnest until at least 10:45.
Mary (Storm Steenson) is a relentlessly chipper young woman working in The Big City as a writer and quasi-reporter. She pitches/is assigned to cover a story in the bucolic hamlet of Snowy Heights. What precisely is she going to cover, you might reasonably ask? You know, just Christmas cheer, in a general sort of way.
So Mary blows into town and wastes no time colliding with Chris (Alexander Oliver), the hunky owner of Cup of Cheer, the town’s allegedly famous hot cocoa shop. He runs the joint with his perpetually cheery brother Keith (Liam Marshall), who moonlights as an elf…kind of. After displaying an alarming misunderstanding of how reservations work, Mary promptly becomes a guest in their home.
But it wouldn’t be a Christmas movie/spoof without a ticking clock and a celebration. Chris discovers that the rent on Cup of Cheer has gone up, which he can’t afford. It’s due on Christmas Eve, the day before Christmas! Mary and Chris must hatch a desperate plan to save the shop while dealing with a Santa (Adam Jenner) who has a fondness for carrying beer in his pockets, the likely psychotic owner of a cafe (Helly Chester) and a time-traveling nobleman (Jacob Hogan) with a disturbing predilection for firearms.
Let’s take a moment to talk about spoof movies. These comedies aim to aim at a certain film genre and delight in dissecting the various tropes that we’re all aware of. The problem is, spoof movies are fiendishly hard to pull off. On the one hand, you have films like Airplane! and The Naked Gun** which are unimpeachable masterpieces. On the other hand, the vast, vast majority of spoof movies suck.*** The jokes tend to be less amusing and more, “Hey, remember this thing in movies? So do I!” Most spoof movies don’t look or feel dynamic, and when directors try to get stylish, it’s only when they’re ripping off the look of the thing they’re mocking.
With Cup of Cheer, we’re faced with a good news/bad news scenario. Director Jake Horowitz knows that if you’re going to effectively maul something comedically, you need to do so with the greatest possible specificity. He knows how these films should feel, the soft snowfall, the pops of red and green in the costuming, the feeling of total comfort. Horowitz nails the tone and proceeds to twist it with gags and bizarre background jokes. That’s good! Unfortunately, his scenes have a tendency to run much longer than they need to, which makes the pacing feel sluggish when it should feel fleet.
The bad news? It’s the script that’s all over the place. Written by Horowitz and co-writer Andy Lewis, we have an assault rifle approach to jokes. We’re peppered with puns, gaffes, jackassery, and general foolishness. Here’s what about that — most of the jokes don’t land as much as they crash into mountains. For stretches of the film, I nodded, acknowledging the existence of a joke since the gags were often low hanging fruit. And then, every so often, something absolutely brilliant would blindside me. Was I expecting a solid gag about the Morgenthau Plan or wild-ass surrealism involving cellphones? Oh, no. You have to be smart to develop this kind of humor, and Horowitz and Lewis seem to be very sharp. I just wished there were far less of the obvious gags and much more of the blazing originality that peeked out occasionally.
Spoof movies aren’t usually known for having stunning performances, which is a pity. Airplane! completely changed the way audiences regarded Leslie Nielsen and (briefly) gave Robert Hays’ career a serious boost. A strong comedic performance requires to pinpoint timing and a willingness to do absolutely anything. The cast here ranges from not bad to pretty good, but we should take a moment to talk about Storm Steenson. She’s the film’s anchor, beginning her performance as your typical winsome lead. Very quickly, we see that Steenson is comfortable going to some banana places. Her timing is aces, and there’s no bit she won’t fully commit to. Some men believe women inherently aren’t funny. They are wrong, stupid, and clearly haven’t seen Steenson on the rampage.
If you’re like me, your 2020 has been suboptimal. You may have come into contact with COVID-19, your livelihood might have taken a hit, and your mental health could be shaky. At this point, after all the pandemics, the elections, the societal upheaval, many of us want that endorphin blast that comes from laughter. Well, hell, I can’t begrudge you that. Cup of Cheer delivers nonstop silliness and gleeful profanity, a movie that feels like your aunt getting hammered, telling off-color jokes, and puking under the Christmas tree.
*Luckily, Christmas movies are finally starting to see LGBTQ representation with the success of Happiest Season.
**Though considered one of the co-stars is O.J. Simpson; I have a tough time chuckling at that particular film. That’s honestly disappointing.
***The current masters of terrible spoof movies are Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, the writers/directors of films such as The Starving Games and Meet the Spartans. Their career has been entirely built on spoof movies, and it bears mentioning the Satanic talent they seem to have of making comedies that aren’t actually funny.