A Carol Christmas (2003)

This one got on my radar because William Shatner plays the Ghost of Christmas Present, and I really wanted to be able to say I've seen versions of A Christmas Carol starring four Starfleet captains.

As the title implies, this is a gender-flipped adaptation. Set in the present day (or at least what those of us who are growing old still think of the present day), this Hallmark movie focuses on self-centered TV personality, Carol (Tori Spelling), who's preparing to do a live broadcast on Christmas Eve and who...

Hold on. That sounds kind of familiar. Let me check my notes...

Undervalued assistant who purchases presents for boss's sibling's family... Love interest who's devoted their life to helping the homeless... Comedic ghosts played by famous actors...

This isn't based on A Christmas Carol: it's a knock-off of Scrooged.

Okay, maybe not tonally. This is far more... well... Hallmark in its approach. At least it's 2003 Hallmark, before the studio mandated anything remotely objectionable be stripped out. To put it another way, this would probably earn a PG rating. Barely. But that's extreme by current Hallmark Christmas standards, where they start with G then tone it down.

The movie starts by showing Carol behaving like a self-centered narcissist. She abuses and underpays her assistant, Roberta Timmins (I know, I know - there's even a "tiny Timmins" line referencing her daughter), threatens members of her crew with termination, dismisses gifts made by her sister's kids, turns down a dinner invite with her only remaining family, and is simply impossible to please. This section is kind of fun, actually. It's over-the-top, but in a campy way driven by a relentless pace. It's basically a farce at this point - I wish they'd maintained this energy.

Soon, we get the first visitation, in the form of "Aunt Marla," the movie's substitute for Jacob Marley. Like all subsequent ghosts, the section starts with Carol falling asleep, leaving room for doubt as to whether any of it actually occurred.

Backstory: Aunt Marla was the one who managed Carol's acting from a young age. Carol still looks up to her, though Marla insists she was wrong. This is by-the-numbers stuff, but it still has the energy and comedic edge we started with, largely thanks to actress Dinah Manoff, who seems to be having a ball with the role. She's told the next ghost will show up at 12, which (spoiler alert) turns out to be noon (everything gets wrapped up in one afternoon).

In order for that timeline to work, Carol wakes up then almost immediately falls back asleep, kicking off the Christmas Past section, where she's visited by Gary Coleman. Arguably literally: she recognizes the ghost and says she used to watch his show, and he jokes about it being hard to get roles looking the way he does. We never get a name for the character aside from the Spirit moniker, though we do get the name of a fictional show. The fourth wall humor is a little awkward, but I'll give it a pass. I'm feeling less charitable towards the next section, however, as we're provided with far more detail about Carol's history than we ever wanted.

We follow her from school Christmas pageants to regional theater, to a 90210 analog into her current talk show. Through it all, Marla is driving her, pushing her away from friends and other family and towards her dreams (which are, of course, more Marla's dreams anyway). We also get a look at the doomed romance between her and "John Joyce," who's moderately famous for opening several soup kitchens in the area. This is partially sabotaged by Marla, though of course Carol is given some of the blame.

We get a brief look at Marla's funeral, which is sparsely attended. We also get a couple interactions, including one cementing the idea Carol's producer is a manipulative creep.

As a side note, I find it odd Marla's more or less the villain of the movie. We discover she lied to Carol and conspired with a producer to put her on a path where she'd end up trapped on a talk show focused on shock value and scandal, despite the fact that was never something she was comfortable with. She manipulated Carol into becoming who she became, a fact that kind of absolves Carol herself. That strikes me as a mistake, at least in terms of this being an adaptation (however loose) of A Christmas Carol. There's a reason Marley was Scrooge's partner, rather than his father.

The section finally ends with Carol waking up, or at least seeming to. Her TV is on, and she's watching "Dr. Bob," a show that was briefly on at the beginning. Dr. Bob, it should be noted, is played by William Shatner, who's now dressed as Santa Claus and pops out of the TV to drag her on the next stage of her journey.

Before we continue the story, let's take a moment and talk about Dr. Bob/The Ghost of Christmas Present. While Coleman's character could ambiguously be interpreted as a version of himself, Shatner's Christmas Present is explicitly a different celebrity in-world. He's got a talk show and a propensity for talking in clichés, a habit he catches himself on several times to comedic effect. He's also germophobic and has allergies. Combined with Shatner's self-aware flair for the dramatic, that makes for an entertaining character. He's a lot of fun.

On top of that, all the spirits have individual ways of teleporting, and they pushed his about as close to Trek transporters as they could get away with without getting sued. It's silly, but that's all you can ask for from this sort of casting.

I also should mention it remains unclear whether these characters are supposed to be spirits taking the form of celebrities, if they're celebrities temporarily given powers to moonlight as spirits, or if they're supposed to be spirits who exist as celebrities as part of their charge. I suppose it doesn't really matter, anyway.

While Shatner's entertaining, the story falls into the same dull, sappy formula that made the past section a bore. First, we catch up with Roberta and her daughter, Lily. We learn they're living in poverty as a result of Carol paying her less than she's worth. Roberta's boyfriend (who also works on the show) offers to help out, but she refuses, wanting to earn her way without handouts (more on this later). As they're celebrating Christmas, Roberta's ex - Lily's father, who left Roberta while she was pregnant - shows up with a summons. He's suing for custody, on the basis that Roberta can't provide for their daughter.

Captain Kirk then takes Carol to her sister's house, where she sees her niece and nephew choose her gifts as the one they'll open on Christmas Eve. Despite telling her assistant to only spend $20 each, the kids receive great gifts, which the Spirit informs her were subsidized by Roberta.

Lastly, we head over to catch up briefly with John, who's happily preparing food for the homeless. Then the spirit drops her off in a field, where she's picked up by the Ghost of Christmas Future, a tall, silent man driving a magic limo.

I should note there seems to be some controversy over who plays this spirit. He's not in the movie's credits, but IMDB lists him as James Cromwell. From certain angles, he looks a little like that actor, but from others... not so much. I really don't think that's him, and some quick Googling confirms I'm not alone in my skepticism. It does not, however, offer insight into what's going on here. If anyone can confirm who that is and why they're uncredited, I'd certainly be interested.

At any rate, the spirit is imposing, at least until they toss in some underdone CG lightning when he starts his car. He brings Carol to various points in her future, though the point gets a bit jumbled. First, we leap ahead maybe a decade or so and find her pushed too far by her producer. She walks away from the show knowing it will likely end her career, in part because she's unwilling to continue exploiting the guests.

So... she'd have changed into a better person regardless? I think the intended point is that her current path in life wouldn't bring her happiness, but this scene kind of breaks the story.

We next catch up with her a few decades later. As an old woman, she's a has-been, doing a humiliating public appearance. I think this was here for comic relief.

Finally we come to her funeral, which is empty even compared to Marla's from the Past section. Only Roberta and her (now ex) boyfriend from the show attended and catch up. We learn Roberta lost custody of Lily, leading to her daughter growing up resenting her. When they leave, we get a short exchange between Carol and the spirit that's actually pulled from Dickens (the whole "shadows of things that will come to pass, or might come to pass" bit, if you're curious). She gets placed in the coffin, then wakes up in her office.

As a whole, the future section was decent. Not great, but better than the stuff set in the past or present. Unfortunately, what comes next is a regression.

Carol wakes up and is overjoyed she has a chance to set things right. She immediately starts screwing with people by acting angry then switching to apologetic (basically mirroring the Boxing Day scene from the source material). But it feels completely out of character and not at all right for her emotional state here. She's contrite and eager to put people at ease - why is she trying to scare people prior to apologizing?

She dramatically raises Roberta's salary and gives her keys to her summer house to live in. Also, she hands her all her money for Christmas presents and tells her to take the business card of her lawyer from her wallet, because she might need it later that night.

For some reason, Roberta doesn't seem to be suspicious. If I were her, I'd think I was about to be framed for murder.

Carol uses her live broadcast to make amends with her crew, and she pledges to accept every product placement deal offered to her, then to donate all the money to her ex-boyfriend's soup kitchens. She also gets on good terms with her producer, which is kind of weird, given we now know he's a sleaze ball. Carol then heads over to her sister's house with a bunch of presents for the kids. While there, her ex, John, shows up, having seen the show, and the two reconnect. Outside, the ghosts watch and congratulate themselves.

Now then, let's talk politics, because I've got a bone to pick. Remember when they made a point about Roberta refusing help she hasn't earned? That wasn't the only time the movie went out of its way to celebrate libertarian values. Hard work, independence, and the value of earning your way even if it means sacrificing time with family are all celebrated in this movie.

Dickens is rolling in his grave.

A Christmas Carol is about our responsibility to each other. It is a progressive work that demands we do more than the bare minimum. Scrooge was already paying Bob a fair wage. The point is that's not enough. In the face of suffering and want, capitalism is insufficient. If you've got a problem with that philosophy, stay the fuck away from A Christmas Carol and find something else to adapt. First, because it's insulting to Dickens's legacy, and second because if you take that element out, you're literally left with a story about someone learning to be nicer. And to be clear that is literally the stated lesson Carol takes away from all this: be nice. That's not enough.

For the record, I have a similar issue with the end of Scrooged, though it's far more egregious here.

With that out of the way, let's talk a little more about how this is as a viewing experience. And... it's better than I expected? I think? As a whole, it's still not good, but individual elements are. I already said Shatner and Manoff are fun. Spelling is also good in her role. Most everyone is. And when this is content to be a farce, it's kind of great. If it had maintained that tone, this movie would be worth recommending.

But, as is often the case, Hallmark is their own worst enemy, so the tone turns overly sentimental and the movie loses all momentum. The good doesn't outweigh the bad here - unless you're really curious to see Shatner play the Ghost of Christmas Present, it's just not worth it.

That said, Shatner is pretty damn fun in the role. Just saying.