Murder, She Baked: A Plum Pudding Mystery (2015)

I picked this at random, not realizing a few things: first, it's based on a novel Lindsay read and reviewed a few years ago. Second, it's the second movie in a series surrounding the same characters. This is, essentially, the Christmas installment of both the book and movie series. Because I didn't see the first movie, I'm not familiar with the characters, so it's possible (however unlikely, in this case) I'm missing significant context to appreciate jokes, arcs, and the like. In theory, movies are supposed to be made so viewers can watch without first seeing earlier installments, though television shows aren't under that assumed constraint. I'm not entirely sold on that idea as it pertains to movies, and in this case, the situation feels even more muddled. I'm really not sure this can reasonably be called a movie: it feels far more like a long television episode in terms of structure, character, and production values.

I should mention this is a Hallmark Movies & Mysteries production. For what it's worth, I've generally found their output more watchable than the other Hallmark subdivisions I've come across. They're more a hard-G, as opposed to the softer G-rated fare I've seen from the company's other corners.

In this case, the edgy content comes in the form of a brief image of a dead body, complete with a tiny amount of fake blood. But I'm getting ahead of myself, because before we even meet the victim, we're first introduced to a dizzying number of characters, all of whom are white and a bizarre number of which are similar-looking blonde women.

To be fair, three of the blonde women are related. Hannah, the main character, runs a bakery while compulsively solving crimes and dating two men, Mike and Norman. Her mother wants her to pick Norman, while her sister favors Mike. Hannah hasn't actually kissed either yet (though that changes by the end of the movie), and sex does not appear to exist in the universe Hallmark movies are set in, so the stakes here are pretty low.

Actually, the stakes feel pretty low around the murder victim, too. Larry, the co-owner of a local Christmas tree lot, harbored a secret past as a conman which ends with Hannah and Norman finding his body after a date. Among those with motives and/or connections to the deceased are his ex-wife (another blonde), his current fiancé, and a florist who practices martial arts and is secretly dating Norman's mother.

Hannah chases down these leads against Mike's wishes, since she's not law enforcement, and she almost got killed doing this in the prior movie. Also, the police mostly seem to have the situation in hand: while Hannah consistently beats them to various witnesses and leads, they always turn up eventually, so it doesn't actually seem like she's helping much, at least until the end when she unearths security footage by asking someone across the street from the crime, a concept that appears to have never been considered by law enforcement in this world.

I should note that, while Hannah is obsessed with puzzles and crimes, she doesn't seem unusually good at them. Her success more stems from her ability to leverage peoples' love of her baked goods. If there's someone she wants information from, she gives them a free cookie, then grills them for information while they're distracted.

In a Scooby-Doo-esque twist, the killer turns out to be Hannah's mother's community college teacher, a woman who only appears a few times prior to the reveal and whose motives and backstory are provided after the fact. There's a sequence in which the killer tries to murder Hannah to keep her quiet, which mainly gives the protagonist a chance to save herself using a martial arts technique Mike showed her earlier. Also, Mike shows up to save her, in case you thought she was destined to end up with the dentist.

The hints connecting her to the crime are silly, too. This isn't really built like a traditional mystery, with meaningful clues or a puzzle the viewer can solve along with the hero. It's more a facsimile of those movies using the concepts but skipping the work of constructing anything satisfying. It feels lazy to me.

That's just one of the ways in which this is a mess structurally. The mystery is sort of overlaid on top of Hannah's dating dilemma, local drama, and familial relationships, all of which just sort of mush together, as if quantity will hide a lack of cohesion. There are absurd numbers of side characters, most of whom aren't given time to develop personalities or even identities beyond "character who likes chocolates and tells Hannah info about the victim's bank accounts." There's too much going on to follow without really paying attention, but if you are paying attention, the stuff going on is mainly noise.

The series' title is a clear allusion to Murder, She Wrote, but that series had Angela Lansbury to hold it up, and - with all due respect to Alison Sweeney - this doesn't. Hannah isn't particularly interesting, which is more or less a fatal flaw in this kind of movie. Conceptually, I think the idea of an amateur detective who manipulates a town for information using baked goods has the potential to be fun, but the movie just doesn't sell it. The character isn't written as subtle enough to explain why everyone doesn't notice immediately, so the conceit becomes tedious rather than endearing.

I don't want to give the impression this was awful. There were a couple inspired moments, including a running gag around a terrifying animatronic elf. This also deserves credit for using what looked like an actual industrial kitchen for Hannah's business, as opposed to something over-decorated or old-fashioned.

The Christmas stuff is fairly surface-level. Again, this is really more a Christmas episode than a Christmas movie. There are holiday decorations, baked goods, and the like, but these are essentially set dressing.

This is far from the worst Hallmark movie out there, but I can't imagine it being something anyone needs to track down. Whether you're after a mystery, a romcom, or both, there are better options.