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Sunday, December 25, 2016

NO ENCORES: Christmas in Connecticut (1992)

1. Christmas in Connecticut (1992)
Director: Arnold Schwarzenegger

2016's Christmas movie marathon began with “Christmas in Connecticut” and so it ends with “Christmas in Connecticut.” I've made no secret of my fandom of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Like many actors, Schwarzenegger decided he wanted to try directing. Considering how controlling Arnold has always been of his image, I'm surprised it didn't happen sooner. The year was 1992, when the Austrian superstar was at the height of his popularity and success. At that point, he probably could've directed any type of movie. For some reason, Arnold's feature directing debut was a straight-to-cable remake of a mostly forgotten Christmas flick from the forties. Aside from a mediocre episode of “Tales from the Crypt,” it is Schwarzenegger's only directorial credit.

Schwarzenegger's “Christmas in Connecticut” attempts to update the original's premise for the cynical nineties. Barbara Stanwyck's Elizabeth Lane becomes Dyan Cannon's Elizabeth Blane. Instead of being a famous food writer, now she's the host of a popular cooking show. But Elizabeth is still a fraud, who is good at smiling for the camera but can't actually cook. Jefferson Jones transforms from a war hero to a park ranger, who daringly rescued a missing boy during a blizzard. Jones' cabin burns down and Blane's cookbook is the only surviving artifact. This gives Elizabeth's sleazy manager an idea. Jones will be invited onto a live Christmas special, where Blane will cook a meal for a “family” made up of actors. What nobody counted on was Elizabeth and Jones falling for each other, causing the cracks in the deception to show.

Some of the changes the remake makes are reasonable. Elizabeth shifting from a popular author to a television personality is a perfect update. A live Christmas broadcast props up the elaborate lie better. The remake sensibly cuts the love triangles, missing babies, and police chases present in the original. It keeps a few key scenes, involving a bathed infant and a flipped pancake. Yet some of the other choices seem odd. Changing Jones into a heroic park ranger, instead of a lauded hero, unnecessarily complicates the story. Making Jones a liar too – he isn't actually a fan of Elizabeth's cook books – makes for a nice thematic parallel on paper. In execution, it makes both lead characters seem like jerks. And that live broadcast conclusion? It comes off as more cartoonish then intense.

What made the original “Christmas in Connecticut” so likable was the chemistry between Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan. The remake slots Dyan Cannon and Kris Kristofferson into the same parts. Cannon has decent comedic timing, showing an amusing energy during the film's more manic moments. Kristofferson doesn't have Morgan's leading man charm. Instead, he employs the stoic toughness seen in most of his acting. Dyan and Kris play off of each other decently. They share a convincing smile or kiss occasionally. Ultimately, the script brings the two together in a way that isn't natural. Krisofferson's acceptance of the deception is too easy.

On the comedy end of things, Arnold's “Christmas in Connecticut” has nothing on the original. The screwball humor of the original is replaced with a collection of shrill supporting characters. Sydney Greenstreet and Reginald Gardiner's characters are combined into Tony Curtis' Alexander Yardley. Curtis crudely, grossly hits on Cannon throughout the film, while generally mugging it up. The actors recreated to be Elizabeth's family are all obnoxious characters. Such as the method actor playing her son-in-law. He's currently prepping to play a serial killer and gruffly mumbles sinister things at inappropriate times. Or the annoying son-of-a-bitch playing the grandson, a chubby kid who screams constantly, shoots people with a squirt gun, and accepts bribes for good behavior. His big act during the ending involves puking on-screen and wrecking a Christmas tree.

The script creates cheesy bonding moments for Elizabeth and Jefferson. Such as a botched hunting trip, which lays down some dramatic cards too early. They cut down a Christmas tree together, in an especially treacly moment full of slow-motion. Scenes devoted to dancing or sled riding are equally contrived. The actors are okay but the film lingers too much on these moments, raising the stakes to artificial, syrupy levels. There's none of the light humor or genuine chemistry that made the 1944 version successful. In its place are eye-roll worthy moments of overly cheesy romance.

How does Arnold Schwarzenegger fare as a director? Not too hot. His visual composition is fairly flat. There's not too much cinematic about the remake. 1992's "Christmas in Connecticut" often feels like the cheap television affair it was. The director frequently peppers scenes with slow motion, montages, and close-ups. These moments are backed up by an incredibly chintzy musical score, which just emphasizes how corny the film is. I don't know if the decision to contrast broad comedy with goopy romance was Arnold's idea but his ham-fisted execution certainly didn't help any. Perhaps uncontrollably, Schwarzenegger included several in-jokes about his career.  Arnold has a brief cameo, the film pausing to linger on his immediately recognizable voice. “Twins” is seen on television in the background. The most prominent, and groan worthy, in-joke involves a character donning sunglasses and a leather jacket before croaking “I'll be back.”

It's not like “Christmas in Connecticut” was an untouchable classic. It was an entertaining, likable flick with room for improvement. A remake could've been really cool. But the 1992 “Christmas in Connecticut” aims low, underwhelming the audience in just about every way. It doesn't even match the original's Christmas-y atmosphere. Arnold Schwarzenegger, god love him, doesn't show much aptitude for directing. So it's probably best he would never helmed another feature film. [5/10]

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