Film Review: Angels Sing

Here we go again with yet another Scrooge-like character becoming Xmas-happy/sappy in an unfortunate, non-returnable holiday offering.


Apologies in advance: Angels Sing, a desperately wannabe Yuletide movie classic just brings out the subversive contrarian in any critic. For me, it's the tragic story of one deeply misunderstood, unjustly persecuted man, Michael Walker (Harry Connick, Jr.), who simply doesn't want to put up Christmas lights. As he's just moved into the squeaky-clean suburb of Live Oak Lane in Austin, Texas—famed for its impressive annual display of holiday illumination—you'd think his independent mindset was a greater crime than pedophilia to his terrifyingly fascistic, lights-obsessed neighbors.

Michael, you see, is not only a modern Scrooge but comes equipped with a wealth of baggage, starting with the childhood death of a brother for which he's he's always felt responsible. That's why he avoids family get-togethers like the plague, to the dismay of his perfect, loving wife Susan (Connie Britton) and ideal son, David (Chandler Canterbury). His father, the Colonel (Kris Kristofferson), is also a light freak, and little David desperately yearns to see Grandpa's twinkly exhibition. But then tragedy strikes the Walkers again, and this time it's David who feels guilty. And wouldn't you just know that, to heal all wounds, Michael has a freaking change of heart and, sure enough, is last seen joining in the happy throngs turning their homes into garish mini-Vegases?

Live Oak Lane's "Trail of Lights" was featured on a beloved Oprah Winfrey episode, and one can just imagine one Lou Berney going, "Aha!" It is he who is responsible for the script here, which director Tim McCanlies handles with as much loving care as any box of fragile ornaments. The early scenes promisingly show Michael and his immediate family as a very well-adjusted, good-natured and jokey bunch, whom community conformity ruthlessly rips asunder. Despite all past and future tragedy and festering family issues, the film is really quite a bland affair, with an unappetizingly sterile look to it. Michael and the Colonel's residential communities may as well be gated ones, for all the searing lack of diversity in them. It's a very white-bread world overall, with no minority or gay family members, in-laws or friends sitting at those pristine dinner tables. Oh, a few African-Americans do show up, and they are given those traditionally condescending, peripherally fleeting roles of "authority"—a doctor, a policeman—which are nothing more than cynically appeasing bit parts in uniform.

Someone, probably Connick, must have a well-stocked music rolodex—besides himself and Kristofferson, the cast is riddled with the likes of Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Kat Edmonson, Dale Watson, Sara Hickman, Marcia Ball, Charlie Sexton, Miss Lavelle White and Ray Benson. Nelson has the dubious distinction of playing Santa in the form of an eccentric geezer, Nick (get it?), who basically just gives his big, beautiful Live Oak Lane house—with strangely feminine Martha Stewart décor—away to the cash-strapped Walkers. Weirdly, for all the talent on the screen, the film isn't very memorable, musically speaking. Do we have to hear "Amazing Grace" again, especially as indifferently sung by a probably bored Nelson here? Lovett, who plays a particularly creepy, enthusiastic zombie of a neighbor, duets with Edmonson on a decidedly off-pitch "Christmastime Is Here," and when Kristofferson sings it is apparent that his voice has seen better days, so it's a relief when the entire family quickly joins in.

Connick actually manages not to be sunk by this treacle and comes across as both highly likeable and movingly complex. He's also believable as a history teacher, railing against the commercial farce Christmas has become to a pack of disinterested students. It's a shame he and Britton aren't given a chance to display their musical chops, as that might have raised the level somewhat. Britton is completely wasted, and as you watch Connick in endless, chauvinistic solo scenes of personal doubt and torment, you have to wonder what the hell she's doing all this time in the rest of the house. The fancily monickered Canterbury dutifully widens his eyes to express extreme emotion. Kristofferson has some touching moments, but the accent of Fionnula Flanagan, as his wife, wanders all over the place, from British to Irish brogue before finally settling into a more appropriate, if overdone, magnolia-and-molasses affair.