A Christmas Karen (2022)

There are two main problems with A Christmas Karen, a new streaming adaptation of Dickens's classic set in modern-day Florida with a stereotypical "Karen" replacing Ebenezer. The first problem is that the premise felt dated before the movie even came out - the whole "Karen" thing has mostly come and gone. The second problem is that the movie is kind of good.

Conceptually, this should basically be a farce in the vein of comedies from the early '00s and before. The first fifteen minutes or so embrace this, with over-the-top exaggerated humor designed to distract the audience rather than draw them in. But as the ghosts start showing up, the jokes become more and more sporadic, so this can focus instead on character and story. Because - and here's what's surprising - this really is an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, rather than a parody or homage.

Sure, the names are different and there are quite a few changes (we'll get to that in a moment), but a surprising number of scenes from the novel remain intact. The dialogue is all updated, but the things characters are saying are often the same as in the source material, and the alterations are thought out to keep the story intact.

Put simply, it's kind of good. Except when they recall this is supposed to be a dumb comedy based on a caricature of middle-aged conservative white women. Then it shifts gears, relying on the usual sort of cheap gags and tired references. Even if this had miraculously come out at the peak of the "Karen" trend, these sequences would have come off feeling cutesy and simplistic compared to the rest of the movie.

So we're left with the core of something that's actually good, wrapped in the shell of a cheesy gimmick. Karen jokes permeate the film, so it's not like you can set that part aside. But at the same time, there's a lot here that works, some of it extremely well. We'll cover that in a bit: first let's discuss how this approaches the plot of A Christmas Carol.

The opening is quite a bit different. Unlike Ebenezer, Karen's not big on work, so the Cratchit analogs are her neighbors rather than employees. The movie opens with Karen shutting down a hot chocolate stand because Nia, the young girl operating it, lacks a permit. We then see Karen go through her day, hanging out with friends at a coffee shop, buying wine at the local store, and in both cases tormenting the poor employees with unreasonable demands and requests to speak to management. She also declines to donate a dollar to a local nonprofit supporting unmarried mothers and works in a variation of the "surplus population" line. During these sequences we see a figure holding a "The end is near" sign. Eventually, that figure shows up on Karen's doorstep and is revealed to be her former boss, Jackie Marley. The essentials of this scene are more or less in keeping with the book, though I could have done without the chastity-belt spin on "chains I forged in life" gag. I was happier with a following segment in which she sees the host of spirits walking the earth, now reimagined as sort of zombie Floridians.

The first spirit shows up soon after, here reimagined as the ghost of a gay black man - everything that Karen looks down on. He shows her the past, though I should note the rules are very different than traditional adaptations: she actually can be seen and heard in the past, with the caveat no one is able to recognize her. Also, she's only able to exist in the past when touching the spirit - if she lets go, they flash back to the present.

She's shown her childhood home, where she and her brother were neglected. Moving ahead, there's a bizarre reinvention of Fezziwig in the form of a bar she worked in called "The Fizzy Pig." Then we see her and her brother have a falling out at her job, after she takes Marley's side when she's berating a package delivery driver. We learn they haven't spoken since.

Next up is the Ghost of Christmas Present, now a British woman dressing like she stepped out of a 1950s sitcom. I'm not entirely sure what they were going for with that design, but the character's certainly interesting. The section is a bit closer to the book, though again there are rule changes. Now she's invisible if and only if she's touching the spirit's robe. Also, the spirit can fly them to their destination at incredible speeds, rocketing them to space first. We first see her use this to ultimately bring Karen next door, in one of the movie's funnier visual gags.

We learn the neighbors Karen harassed earlier are in bad shape financially. Chris, the husband, is in danger of losing his job at the nonprofit Karen refused to donate to earlier. Robin is trying to manage the family's finances by selling their belongings on eBay, but it's not enough, largely because their daughter, Nia, requires medication for leukemia they can't afford. The movie finds ways to incorporate a surprising amount of the Tiny Tim material considering the differences, and - impressively - makes it feel relatively natural.

Next up we visit Karen's brother's party. This is, of course, the Fred analog, and - again - it's fairly similar, though her brother's more emotionally scarred by her absence.

The Ghost of Christmas Future is a polite, soft-spoken teen wearing a black hoodie. It's a neat visual callback despite the character being quite a bit different. The things she sees here, on the other hand, are fairly close to the original, though the order of events is shuffled around. We start looking at a Puerto Rican family who moves into Karen's house following her death in a callback to Scrooge briefly seeing someone new in his office. Immediately afterward, we learn that Nia's died, allowing for a series of scenes in which Karen thinks people are joking about the child's death when they're really talking about her. It all culminates at her funeral, where Robin and Chris meet her brother and his husband. The scene offers some gravitas, as have earlier sequences with these characters.

Once she's returned to the present, she immediately starts trying to make amends, though - somewhat refreshingly - she isn't magically good at it. Trying not to be racist and homophobic doesn't reverse a lifetime of inaccurate impressions, and we see her make one mistake after another. This is the only sequence where I felt like the comedy meshed with their approach to the material. Through it all, she remains good-natured and manages to repair relationships, help the family next door, and come off as a far better person, despite still being hopelessly naive and ignorant about the world around her.

I realize the synopsis probably doesn't sound like a faithful adaptation, but there are entire scenes using updated (but conceptually intact) exchanges from Dickens. More than that, this feels thematically true to Dickens's book in a way even many adaptations set in Victorian London don't. While it does veer into discussions about Christmas spirit, the crux of Karen's flaw is that she doesn't care about connections to others or value others' well-being above her comfort. I don't think I'd have ever thought to phrase it this way, but Ebenezer Scrooge could be viewed as feeling entitled to his wealth, regardless of the pain hoarding it inflicted on others. A Christmas Carol is ultimately a book about our connections as humans and our responsibilities, and A Christmas Karen understands that. I'm not certain it depicted the modern-day equivalent as well as it could have within its chosen cultural reference, but the core idea is there.

Where it kind of falters is the "Karen" stuff. To be frank, this would be a better movie if the title were different, the main character had a different name, and around a third of the jokes got cut. You'd have ended up with a quirky, fun, modern-day adaptation. But as it is there's a real disconnect between the tone of the comedy and the overall narrative. And while choosing to prioritize the Christmas Carol aspects may have been the right choice for the movie, leaning into the hokey jokes and physical comedy would probably have been better for the film's chances of finding an audience. Because right now it's kind of a decent comedic adaptation masquerading as a laugh-a-minute parody, and I don't think the people drawn to the latter are going to be happy with what they're getting. Perhaps that's why this one's largely slipped under the radar.

Or maybe it was just doomed from the start, because the whole "Karen" joke has faded like so many internet memes before it. Half the reason I was drawn to this adaptation over others on my list is that its existence felt absurd. The other half is that there were a few great jokes and hints of good performances in the trailer.

Speaking of which, let's talk a little about the cast, because they deserve some real praise. All the leads are great here, which.... Okay, look. Sometimes when I review low-budget movies, I'll say the cast did good work for the production. I don't expect actors with just a handful of credits to their names to have the screen presence and timing of pros, so I discuss them accordingly. This isn't one of those times. I'm not grading on any kind of curve here. The cast is just plain good in this thing. Michele Simms does good comedic work as Karen Scrooge, though the ghosts, Marley included, are the real standouts. 

And if the entire cast looks good, that's also a good indication the directors (two this time - Jon Binkowski and Lisa Enos Smith) were doing something right. Likewise, there's some great cinematography in this, including a couple shots that seemed far outsight the reach of what I imagine the budget for this must have been. So toss cinematographer Dan Stilling's name on the long list of people who should be proud of this.

And while we're talking about the movie's merits, I also want to call attention to something the movie didn't do. In theory, this is an over-the-top parody, and quite a few major characters were minorities or queer. While Karen's racism and homophobia were the butt of jokes, these characters weren't, nor were they reduced to stereotypes. Karen's brother's Christmas party is populated by characters coded as gay, and the movie doesn't go for cheap laughs. In this genre, that's pretty refreshing.

That said, the chastity belt joke at the end of the Marley section was a thematic misstep. I'm guessing someone really liked the image and thought it was hilarious as a spin on Marley's chains, but slut shaming jokes didn't belong here. This bit should really have been cut.

Rather than end on a sour note, I'll call out another detail that impressed me. At several times, the movie shows characters watching an old version of A Christmas Carol on TV, and I practically strained my eyes trying to figure out which one they were watching. The answer is "none of them" - they filmed their own sequences. Pulling off that effect convincingly isn't easy, but for a while I genuinely thought they might have dredged up a version I hadn't seen. Well done.

Given the premise, this is a surprisingly thoughtful and well-constructed take on A Christmas Carol. It's clear the people making it knew the story inside and out, and they offered some really interesting twists while maintaining the core of the work. Despite this, the shlocky comedy bits are distracting. There are some hilarious moments in this, but they're few and far between - the majority of the jokes are gags about Karen drinking a lot of wine, saying racist things, and asking for managers: it gets tired really fast. So, while this is on a whole a solid movie, I'm going to stop short of recommending it unconditionally. That said, if you're curious I think you'll be impressed by the movie's ability to convey the ideas and emotion of Dickens's work.