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Review: "The Man Who Invented Christmas"

One of my favorite holiday films is Richard Donner's 1988 black comedy Scrooged starring Bill Murray. In that film, Murray's Frank Cross character is a modern incarnation of Ebenezer Scrooge, from Charles Dickens' classic novella "A Christmas Carol." Like its source material, Scrooged follows Cross on Christmas Eve as he's visited by three spirits who teach him life-changing lessons and ultimately help him turn a new leaf, ditching his cynical demeanor in exchange for a warmer heart (and what not). It's a testament to Dickens' prose that "A Christmas Carol" singlehandedly won over readers in Europe (and the Yankees across the Atlantic) enough to revitalize the Christmas holiday itself. The fact that movies still borrow inspiration from its pages shows the timelessness of its ideas and themes -- not to mention its structure of implicit time travel. And now comes The Man Who Invented Christmas, which gives us the behind the scenes story of "A Christmas Carol," bringing to life a very distraught Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens, who played the Beast in this year's Beauty and the Beast) as he races to write his novella in under six weeks (therefore hitting bookstores in time for Christmas).

The good news is that The Man Who Invented Christmas isn't as terrible as its trailer or marketing campaign lead you to believe it is. Working from an adapted screenplay by Susan Coyne, the film wisely knows its place in the movie universe -- which exists somewhere between made-for-TV family fare and another powdered BBC period reenactment -- and then takes some interesting risks with it. And by "risks" I mean its visualization of the creative process. After the film sets up its stakes (Dickens is running out of money, his wife is pregnant with their umpteenth child and his debt-riddled father resurfaces), Christmas does its due diligence of showing what so many other movies have done in the past: the author coping with writer's block. Then things get interesting once Dickens' half-baked ideas begin to materialize as real life characters (that only Dickens can see of course). The first of these characters to appear in front of Dickens is Scrooge himself, played by Christopher Plummer (Beginners).

From this point on, Christmas hums to a playful tone as Dickens becomes embattled with what his characters want to happen in his novella versus what he believes should happen (but this is all silly, considering all of this is in Dickens' head but I guess that's part of the charm or fun or whatever, I'm overthinking the fuck out of this). Of course, as the real life problems stack up, Dickens ends up reckoning with his own "ghosts of Christmas past" if you will (namely his poor family roots and the shame his father brought upon him from a very early age). Stevens proves himself to be a likable Dickens and his supporting cast is the who's who of British screen acting, so that doesn't hurt.

Fortunately, because of the light nature of its content, Christmas doesn't overstay its welcome, clocking in at an agreeable 104 minutes with credits. Is this going to be the definitive screen account of Dickens or any sort of biographical drama of his? Of course not. It's harmless and it means well and I'm sure there are plenty of grandmothers who will refer to it as "cute" before warming up some tea and throwing on the DVD of Scrooged for their grandkids to watch.