Film Review: Merry Christmas

If Henry Jaglom remade <i>Fanny and Alexander</i>, you would have something like <i>Merry Christmas</i>, a less-than-merry movie.

First-time feature filmmaker Anna Condo’s Merry Christmas starts with an intriguing idea—involving a murder-mystery weekend—but never follows it through with anything especially witty or insightful. Even those looking for an offbeat Christmas-themed movie will be disappointed.

Condo’s story, such as it is, tells what happens when a wealthy New York family travels with friends and loved ones on a trip to a Pennsylvania bed-and-breakfast in order to celebrate the holidays. Adding to the mix, a murder-mystery game has been arranged in advance and everyone dresses in 1970s “glitter” garb.

During the couple of days at the inn, family tensions rise and all the arguing and fighting diminish interest in the game. A homeless man also shows up, further testing the attitudes of the various guests. The occasion ends with the surprise revelation of “the killer.”

What could have been funny or suspenseful never becomes either in a script that seems wholly improvised by the cast. The characters are generally unpleasant, yet there isn’t nearly enough criticism by the filmmaker of their boorish, elitist behavior. Condo’s on-the-fly filmmaking approach (Merry Christmas was shot in a couple of days) would be more welcome—including the jerky zooms—if the story led anywhere. Even Henry Jaglom’s most self-indulgent works arrive at a climax of sorts, and reveal something worth waiting for to the audience. Most annoyingly, the actors speak over one another so often that what was once considered a breakthrough in screenwriting—the overlapping dialogue technique of Orson Welles—is just noise here.

Sadly, some of the actors try hard but have little to show for their efforts. Alexandra Stewart plays the kind of part Gena Rowlands might have portrayed had John Cassavetes made this film years ago. Stewart’s self-contained matriarch offers character possibilities unexplored by Condo, but Stewart, like the film itself, is overwhelmed by an excess of nothingness.