CONVEX GROUP/Color/2.35/Dolby Digital/96 Mins./Rated PG

Cast: Susan Sarandon, Penelope Cruz, Paul Walker, Alan Arkin, Marcus Thomas, Chazz Palminteri, Donna Hanover, Sonny Marinelli, Daniel Sunjata, Robin Williams (uncredited).
Credits: Directed by Chazz Palminteri. Screenplay by David Hubbard. Produced by Zvi Howard Rosenman, Al Corley, Bart Rosenblatt, Eugene Musso. Director of photography: Russell Carpenter. Production designer: Carol Spier. Edited by Susan Morse. Music by Alan Menken. Costume designer: Renee April. Executive producers: Jonathan Dana, Jeff Arnold, Dan Adler. Co-producers: James Mulay, Matt Luber. A Convex Group/Neverland Films/Zvi Howard Rosenman production.

The new Christmas movie Noel will never become a classic, but it has all the elements of a good holiday tearjerker. In David Hubbard’s O. Henry-inspired story, several people find the true meaning of the day when their lives are thrown into turmoil on Christmas Eve. Set in New York City, Noel starts with Rose (Susan Sarandon), a successful book editor and recent divorcée, who visits her ailing mother in the hospital. Rose is comforted by a stranger in the next room (an unbilled Robin Williams) as she tries vainly to find a connection with her mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s.

In another part of town, a police officer named Mike (Paul Walker) puts his impending marriage to Nina (Penelope Cruz) into jeopardy when he flies into one of his jealous rages. Mike is further irritated when a deli owner named Artie (Alan Arkin), whom he has never seen before, claims he knows Mike from the past.

Finally, Jules (Marcus Thomas) tries to revive his only happy Christmas memory—a trip to the emergency room of a hospital at age 14—by staging an accident that will get him there again.

Rose becomes distraught about her mother—and her loneliness—until she finds renewed hope through the mysterious stranger, who, she discovers, is a dying patient, not just a visitor. Mike also gains insight about his relationship with Nina when Artie’s pursuit of the young man creates an accident that puts him in the hospital. And Jules’ visit to the hospital’s emergency room isn’t all he had hoped for, but he, too, finds a silver lining by Christmas morning.

Chazz Palminteri, the actor best known for playing mobster types, may not come to mind as the first or best person to direct a spiritual Christmas fable. Indeed, Palminteri plays a bad dude in this very film (the man Jules hires to break his hand). The first-time feature director mines every bit of Hubbard’s screenplay for its heart-tugging moments; sometimes he’s even shameless about the schmaltz. But he juggles the various storylines well and incorporates just enough bits of humor to make Noel pleasantly watchable.

Of course, the cast and crew help a lot. Cinematographer Russell Carpenter (Oscar-winner for Titanic) knows just how to use the camera for emotional effect—his opening traveling crane shot of Sarandon’s Rose through the icy city sidewalks is masterful, a perfect illustration of loneliness in a crowd. Carol Spier, David Cronenberg’s most frequently used production designer, lends the film a New York feel, even when the sets don’t seem authentic. Susan Morse, Woody Allen’s most frequently used editor, cleanly integrates the many pieces of the production. And Alan Menken, the Disney musical composer, lavishes his most souped-up scoring for the key emotional moments.

In front of the cameras, Sarandon delivers yet another moving, professional piece of work, and Cruz and Walker are much more winning than they have been in other films. Arkin does his usual eccentric thing, while Thomas makes only a minor impression. The only really sour note comes from Williams, who is thankfully somewhat restrained, but much too big a personality for such a delicate role. (Not giving Williams screen credit doesn’t compensate for the miscasting.)

In any event, those looking for a new Christmas movie that isn’t a silly comedy (e.g., Surviving Christmas) should search no further than Noel.