Monday, July 15, 2024

‘Just Another Christmas’ Sours Quickly

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A Brazilian Christmas movie, Roberto Santucci’s Just Another Christmas is not unlike another movie I watched this week Godmothered. Sadly, it does not have the zest of a finale bringing all its disparate threads together for a satisfying and emotional ending. The script by Paulo Cursino is lively but doesn’t care to do the legwork of setting up emotional payoffs. It is a high concept story with a low concept execution.

Jorge (Leandro Hassum) is the everyman put-upon husband who’s not that put-upon but for some reason feels as if no one is more put-upon than he is. Jorge’s birthday also so happens to be on Christmas which has left him with a somewhat jaded view of the holiday. 

Every year Jorge must deal with the tumultuous brood that is his family. Relatives asking for money, arguments that break out, and of course the annual storm out by his father-in-law as he takes the turkey with him. It’s mass chaos.

While all of this is going on we notice a lone figure sitting in the corner of Jorge’s living room. An old man, not unlike Santa Claus, seems to be comatose and staring at a black and white television. He is Jorge’s grandfather-in-law Vo Nhanhao (Levi Ferreira). Silent and out of the way, the family rarely acknowledges him. Jorge’s wife Laura (Elisa Pinheiro) barely even looks at him. All of this is odd but it becomes odder still when Vo Nhanhao overhears Jorge’s mutterings about how much he hates Christmas and curses him to learn the meaning of the season.

If you’re wondering how or why Vo Nhanhao sits in the corner in a coma only to come out once every so often to cast a curse or taunt Jorge, you’d be on your own. Just Another Christmas seems to hardly give a fig about the old man despite him being a catalyst for all the magical goings-on. The most we learn is that he had a stroke. How he came about gaining his magical powers goes untold.

Soon Jorge is forced to dress up as Santa and prance around on the roof in some bizarre attempt to convince the children that Santa is real. Predictably Jorge falls off the roof and wakes up on Christmas.

That’s Vo Nahanhao’s curse. For 364 days of the year, Jorge goes about his life with his full memory, but every December 24th, he reverts to the Jorge who fell off the roof with no memory of the previous year. He is doomed to revert to a different Jorge, once a year, every year.

I must admit that Cursino’s script treats the curse with the right mixture of skepticism and credulity without getting bogged down in trying to cure or explain it. This is not Groundhog Day nor does it pretend to be. It is a Christmas movie with a more convoluted premise than most and tries to wing it from there.

While he may not be reliving the same day over and over, every Christmas Eve seems to go the same as the previous one, beat for beat, so it becomes repetitive both for Jorge and for us. Because nothing Jorge does seems to have any effect on what the people do on the next Christmas, after all, he reverts to normal the next day.

It is a sort of Christmas Eve partial amnesia. The whole family seems to take Jorge’s condition in stride. His brother-in-law Leo (Miguel Romulo) at times tries to take advantage of Jorge’s condition. Every year he borrows money from Jorge. But upon learning of his amnesia, he tries to convince him that he’s paid it back and it is Jorge who owes him money. It does not go well.

The problem with Just Another Christmas is that for most of the movie, nothing matters. Nothing Jorge does has any consequence. Every Christmas is the same and so the message of learning to appreciate the little things doesn’t land as well because we the viewer just want something to be different.

Santucci and Cursino eventually figure this out, but by the time they do it’s almost been an hour and we have another hour to go. Worse is that Hassum’s Jorge vacillates between an arrogant tool and genuinely funny. Santucci and Cursino’s humor is sort of observational with a hint of slapstick that both fits Hassum and hinders him.

I did love the little bit where Jorge woke up with a horrendous mustache and screams in horror. He and Laura have a hilarious circular conversation. He tries to figure out why he’s grown this horrendous thing and she tries to tell him she doesn’t know, she begged him not to.

Turns out Jorge is having an affair with Marcia (Danielle Winits), and she loves the mustache.

The second half of Just Another Christmas begins to make strides to being an interesting movie if only because things actually change. Cursino’s script takes a shortcut by having Jorge take sleeping pills when he wakes up, so we skip several Christmas Eves in a row.

Just Another Christmas is one of those movies where I spent my time wanting to love it but it seems to do everything in its power to annoy me. Made with a sort of drab and gloomy aesthetic, the film depresses when it should be uplifting. 

There are moments where the movie is in danger of redeeming itself. But these instances are reminders that, had Santucci and Cursino done more to establish these characters, the pay off would be so much more enjoyable. Laura and Jorge’s drifting apart over the years would have been more powerful if we had spent more time with Jorge and Laura in any way that wasn’t them arguing.

Likewise, Jorge’s daughter eventually develops breast cancer and Jorge suddenly begins to understand the importance of the holidays. But his daughter plays such a small part in his life and in the movie itself, that it feels like a cheap trick to play to our sympathies. 

It’s obvious that Hassum is talented, he has a wonderfully expressive face that almost feels like its made of rubber. Despite my annoyance with much of the movie, I found myself chuckling at his delivery and facial contortions. For the life of me, though, I just couldn’t get into Just Another Christmas.

It felt cynical in its sentimentality. For all its talk of “family”, we never see Jorge’s family. His dad shows up for the last Christmas before wishing himself back to normal with his birthday wish. Cursino seems to have gone through a lot of trouble to set things up that never pay off and while giving us moments that would have paid off marvelously had there been any setup.

For all of Jorge’s monologuing the fact that his birthday is on Christmas adds very little to anything that happens in Just Another Christmas. His birthday and Christmas being on the same day serves no other purpose other than a plot device. Then there’s Jorge’s job. Throughout the film, Jorge and Laura discuss his salary, his promotions, and how he spends so much time working and not enough with his family. Yet, we have no idea what Jorge does.

So much of Just Another Christmas is awash in this vague information that never adds up to anything. It compounds the frustration when so much is happening, yet we know none of it will matter in the next scene. Hassum is talented, but he and the other actors can only do so much with a script that does more to highlight than support them.

Just Another Christmas is at times almost insufferable. The title is misleading as it implies it is merely average. The truth is much more damning, as the average Christmas film is better than Just Another Christmas.

Image courtesy of Netflix

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