Dolly Parton's Christmas on the Square (2020)

The problem with movies like Dolly Parton's Christmas on the Square is that, once you watch them, you invariably find yourself in the position of having to write a scathing review of something created by and starring Dolly Parton, who is a national treasure. When we started watching this, we did so hoping - praying, even - that it would be fantastic, and that we'd be able to sing its praises.

And, for what it's worth, there are good aspects to this movie. Christine Baranski plays the lead role, and she's amazing. Hell, it might be worth watching this for her alone. In addition, there are some good musical numbers and even more good musical moments. They got a cast who could sing, and it paid off.

And for all the issues I'll have with the writing in a moment - just wait for it - this was structured the way a musical should be structured. The songs (or at least the vast majority of them) serve a purpose in the narrative, either moving the story forward, exploring character motivations and backstories, or dramatizing emotion. This deserves credit for being more than an excuse for characters to sing.

The issues, well... First, let's talk about the plot.

Baranski plays Regina, a wealthy woman who recently inherited the town she grew up in from her late father, a benevolent landlord who was beloved by those who lived and worked there. She recently struck a deal with a developer to evict literally everyone, tear down their shops, and build a shopping mall in its place. The movie basically opens with her going around and handing out eviction notices to her childhood friends.

If all this sounds hilariously lacking in subtlety... well, it was, but they leaned into it. I actually really liked this sequence - the lyrics were clever, and it was perfectly aware of how cartoonish the setup was.

Of course, it wouldn't be "Dolly Parton's Christmas on the Square" without Dolly Parton. She's introduced as a homeless woman who runs into Regina and asks her repeatedly for "change" (pun both intentional and painful). Also, she's shedding magic pixie dust, because she's an angel. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

We're also introduced to a bunch of side characters, the most significant of which are the local pastor and his wife, who are trying to have a baby. There's also a hairdresser who used to be best friends with Regina, a barkeep with an absurdly wise preteen daughter, and Regina's ex-boyfriend, who now owns an antique store.

Oh, also Regina has a personal assistant who turns out to be an angel in training, but we don't learn that until we're halfway through the movie. Also, that twist doesn't make a damn bit of sense. I guess Parton really wanted a duet where she chastises another angel for not doing her job?

Before long, Parton starts appearing to Regina in full angelic glory, but Regina assumes it's just a brain tumor due to a subplot I don't really feel like exploring. Regina eventually confronts the town at a rally and winds up expediting their eviction date. Then she storms off to get a drink.

She winds up being served by the daughter of the barkeep, since he's still at the meeting. This scene involves a tween serving a sixty-eight-year-old whiskey, and... yeah, okay, that's objectively awesome. The movie alludes to how absurdly illegal it is and does it anyway. The sequence is fun as hell until we get the kid's backstory.

See, the girl's mom died trying to get medicine for her when she was three. There used to be a local drugstore, but Regina forced it to close, which meant her mom needed to go out of town. You can infer the rest from there.

The kid has no clue she's talking to Regina, who's horrified to realize her actions have consequences. She heads out when the kid's dad gets back.

The next day we get the rest of Regina's backstory. When she was seventeen, she had a one-night stand with a stranger after a school dance and got pregnant. Her father was horrified. He forced her to hide the pregnancy, then he made her give the child up for adoption. There's a scene where he has the child wrenched out of her arms while she's in a hospital bed.

She's always resented him for this. The town, too, though it's not clear whether that's because it wouldn't have accepted her as a single mom or if she just wants to dismantle her father's life's work. Either way, as far as an anti-hero's motivation goes, it's pretty believable. I really liked this twist...

...For about fifteen seconds. Because that's how long it takes the movie to throw another twist at the viewer, and...

Look, if there are any eight-year-old bartenders in the vicinity offering you a glass of whiskey, I'd suggest accepting it before you read the next sentence.

Because in the next scene Dolly Parton shows her some context to explain why her father is actually the good guy. See, when he robbed her daughter of the choice to raise her own child, it was because he believed she'd be rejected. He really had her best interests at heart, and he felt bad about having to do it. So, to recap:
  • The man who denied his daughter the opportunity to raise or know her child: ultimately good.
  • The woman who left town hating her father for what he did to her: in need of redemption.
Before we can fully digest this, we discover the young girl from earlier just got hit by a car trying to visit her mother's grave. She has severe head trauma, and might not pull through.

Regina tells her assistant to find the best neurosurgeon in the country and fly them in immediately, no matter what it costs. Then she finds her way to her former boyfriend's store, where she picks up a lantern that used to belong to her father. At home, she discovers a secret compartment in the lantern containing a family Bible, where she discovers a family history, including the name of her son.

Turns out, it's the pastor, which was already obvious (not a lot of characters in this, and he's the only candidate who's the right age and makes sense). So she shares the news with him, goes to his church, and tells everyone she's not going to sell the town.

Also, the kid's fine, because Dolly Parton uses angel magic. Also, Dolly Parton knocks up the pastor's wife (again with angel magic), which is... a choice.

So. Yeah. Weird.

I can forgive a lot when it comes to stuff like this. Obviously, it's meant to be a little campy, a little melodramatic, and more than a little sappy. The music is mixed - some of it's a lot of fun, some is mediocre, and some is downright painful (there's a song in the church about Regina being a witch that was one of the worst live-action musical numbers I've ever seen). It stumbles trying to blend stage and screen conventions, but I understand that's to be expected. This isn't trying to be perfect - it's trying to be heartfelt.

The point is, I was prepared to overlook a lot. Know what I can't overlook, though? Bullshit morals that use faith as a shield to defend regressive ideas. The resolution is based on the idea that Regina's father's heart was in the right place, so he deserves to be remembered as an honorable figure. The flaw here is in Regina, because she couldn't forgive her father and look past his action and see into his heart. And I find that notion offensive.

What I find strange is there's an easy fix to all this. If the movie hadn't tried to redeem her father, but instead doubled-down on the reveal that Regina had a real reason to hate him and he deserved no better. Then Regina's realization could center on the idea that her hate shouldn't extend to the town he built, because that town is populated by people who weren't responsible or part of that act.

Maybe the movie could have ended with her saving the town, revealing who her father was, and having the residents choose to dismantle the symbolic elements that made the town his. The movie was fixated on the gaslights around the square - why not have those replaced with something more practical, rather than having every aspect of his legacy preserved?

I'd have found that quite a bit more satisfying, and I'd even have overlooked the annoying deus ex machina around having an angel magic everyone's problems away.

I know, I know, that's not the story they wanted to tell. They wanted a parable about honoring and preserving our past, even when we don't immediately understand it. But maybe it's because this has been a long year, or maybe that parable lines up a bit too closely with confederate apologists, but I don't have a lot of patience left for that mindset.

If you're a huge fan of Dolly Parton, I assume you've already seen this, love it, and are pissed off by every word of this review. If so, I'm glad you liked it! But I can't really recommend this to anyone else. It's got some good moments, but not enough to make up for the rest.