Nothing makes me feel Scroogier than a slapped-together Christmas movie, which, thanks to the algorithms of tech-companies-turned-content-creators, start to drop in late October (even before Halloween) at a rate of nearly a dozen a week. This year, Netflix has entries planned with Lindsay Lohan and Freddie Prinze Jr., Disney+ is doing “The Hip Hop Nutcracker,” Lifetime gives us “Merry Textmas” and more, while Hallmark Channel has “#Xmas” and “Three Wise Men and a Baby,” in addition to its annual Luke Macfarlane canoodle.
You’ll be lucky to find a single keeper among the 150-plus new holiday movies heading to streaming platforms and cable networks this season (that number is not an exaggeration). Which is why the only one I’ll be reviewing is “Spirited,” an Apple Original Films offering with Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds — a musical featuring fresh tunes from “La La Land” songwriters Pasek and Paul — that’s a cut above the fruitcake everyone else is dishing out. I’d wager it’s the only holiday movie from this 2022 vintage you’d be willing to rewatch a year later — assuming you get past the first 30 minutes, that is.
“Spirited” reps Hollywood’s umpteenth “A Christmas Carol” knockoff, a genre that even director Sean Anders’ screenplay (co-written with John Morris) acknowledges “nobody asked for.” Think Bill Murray’s “Scrooged,” updated to our divisive and deeply cynical times. Here, Marley (Patrick Page) — a character straight out of Dickens — runs an elaborate annual de-Scrooging operation, in which the Ghosts of Christmas Past (Sunita Mani), Present (Ferrell) and Yet-to-Come (Tracy Morgan) are sent to bully rotten souls, like Reynolds’ ruthless marketing consultant, Clint Briggs, into being better men. Or women, as in the case of the noxious white neighbor (named Karen, of course) they’re rehabilitating in the opening scene.
If that first number were funnier, the movie might have us from the get-go, but it’s not, so it doesn’t. If anything, this intro has us thinking, “Oh no, this is a musical!?” (The trailer hides that fact, whereas the film’s poster hints at it — although seeing gaily clad Ferrell and Reynolds in matching poses suggests a “Blades of Glory” sequel … nobody asked for.)
Anders knows that today’s audiences don’t want a musical, and so he adopts the unfortunate smart-alecky tone that will come to define this decade of cinema. You know the one: It’s that arm’s-length sense of irony we get in Disney’s “Tangled” or Taika Waititi’s “Thor: Ragnarok,” where the film immediately starts to undermine itself, acting as though audiences have seen the same story a thousand times before and will only go along if the movie is self-aware enough to acknowledge that it’s lame. In “Spirited,” the instant Ferrell bursts into song, Marley interrupts him and begs him to stop. The problem with this meta approach (which is effectively Reynolds’ brand, from “Deadpool” to “Free Guy”) is obvious: When the movie stops taking itself seriously — or sincerely — why should we?
Still, Anders makes sly use of his co-leads star personas, contrasting Ferrell’s doofy guilelessness with Reynolds’ relatively sardonic sensibility. And he has a secret weapon in Octavia Spencer, who’s sincerity personified. Clint runs a cutthroat marketing agency, and Spencer plays his right-hand woman, Kimberly, who specializes in digging up dirt on their opponents — even when the “client” is Clint’s eighth-grade niece (Marlow Barkley), and the opponent is the well-meaning classmate she’s running against for student council president. This is a promising subplot, since most “Christmas Carol” adaptations are inherently Capraesque, whereas watching a shark like Clint sink his teeth into a junior high student-government campaign skews closer to David Mamet or Armando Iannucci territory.
After a couple clunky numbers featuring a lot of over-excited choreography and entirely too much tapping, Spencer’s “The View From Here” is the first genuinely good song (with a few more to come): a heartfelt solo from a conflicted good person who sold her soul for a corner office. Kimberly sings to herself in private, but Anders blocks the scene with Ferrell’s “Roberto” (the amusing impromptu alias he assumes when asked) listening in, invisible to her, but clearly smitten in our eyes. Per the movie’s rules, Ferrell’s character is overdue for retirement, and when he does decide to take it, he’ll be permitted to return to earth and live again. Guess who will motivate him to go back.
In an original imagining of how these annual hauntings might work, Anders suggests they’re performed by an extensive crew of ghostly “actors,” who do rigorous re-stagings of key scenes from the lives of whichever humbug they’re trying to convert. That means complicated scene changes, as crew members roll backdrops and furniture into place for each vignette (it all feels rather Charlie Kaufman-esque, though the place to go from here, if you like the concept, is the clever French rom-com “La Belle Époque”). With two centuries’ practice, they’ve got it down to an art, but Clint is an “unredeemable” — a lost cause who can’t be changed — and instead of being intimidated by their theatrics, he interrupts and takes control, seducing Past, and forcing Present to rethink his afterlife choices.
For audiences cliché-savvy enough to appreciate the movie’s self-skewering sense of humor, this all plays out pretty much as they’d expect. But that doesn’t mean “Spirited” can’t still surprise. Without spoiling the joke, let’s acknowledge that the film contains the year’s funniest musical number in “Good Afternoon,” a Dickensian duet between Reynolds and Ferrell that ranks right up there with Monty Python’s most irreverent songs — and which ought to appeal to everyone’s inner Scrooge, this grinchy critic’s included.
‘Spirited’ Review: Ryan Reynolds Bugs the Dickens Out of Will Ferrell in Clever ‘Christmas Carol’ Flip