Genie (2023)

This is a remake of a 1991 British TV movie called Bernard and the Genie, which I've yet to see at the time I'm writing this review (though there's a decent chance that'll change before you're actually reading this). Skimming the Wikipedia article for that film, the stories seem quite a bit different, even if the overall premise is the same: a man down on his luck finds a genie who grants him bucketloads of wishes as he tries to fix his problems.

Hopefully it worked better the first time around - despite some impressive talent involved, this remake mostly falls flat. The main issue is one of tone, namely that the movie tries to create the wrong one. The scripts for both this and the movie it's based on are written by the legendary Richard Curtis, who seems to treat the story as something of a farce, at least until the resolution. Likewise, Melissa McCarthy is certainly playing the Genie with the same sort of larger-than-life comedic energy. Unfortunately, director Sam Boyd approaches this as if it's a relatively grounded comedy. The movie's score plays into this, as well, downplaying the humor in favor of sentiment.

The result is just baffling. The characters aren't written as smart or believable enough for the viewer to connect with them on an emotional level, but the way they're shot drains the energy and humor from the experience. It's a movie that works against itself on an intrinsic level.

On top of that, aspects of the movie feel deeply out of touch with the modern world. The main character's flaw is supposedly being out of touch with his family due to his focus on work, but we're shown outright that he's mistreated and exploited by a boss who doesn't respect him. The movie asks us on multiple occasions to assume money won't solve problems - the protagonist dismisses the idea of using his wishes to acquire wealth out of hand, despite just losing his job - but this idea rings hollow in a world of rising grocery prices and even more so in a country where access to health insurance is far from certain. Granted, this isn't an inherent structural problem, but it is an area where the movie feels tone-deaf and poorly imagined. Bernard isn't a character we can relate to, because his reaction to receiving infinite wishes comes across as alien.

But with that out of the way, I should probably explain who Bernard is. Played by Paapa Essiedu, Bernard is one of Genie's two main characters, the other of course being the Genie herself. He works for an art dealer (played by Alan Cumming, who portrayed Bernard in the '91 movie), and - due to his boss's unreasonable demands - he misses his daughter's birthday on December 13th. His wife, furious that he keeps missing important events due to his job, tells him she wants a separation and takes their daughter to her mother's house. Bernard, meanwhile, gets fired from his job after asking for a few weeks off to try and fix his marriage.

It's right after this that he accidentally frees the genie from a box she's been imprisoned in for two thousand years. There are only a couple rules - no time travel, and she can't change people's emotions (i.e., she can't make his wife love him again). Other than that, they can do anything.

So Bernard does... very little, in the scheme of things. For the most part, he uses the genie as a private butler who fixes up his apartment, fetches pizza, and transports him from place to place. There are a couple sequences where things get a little more intense. He has the genie grant every wish to a line of kids waiting to see Santa, so the pencil they're given as a souvenir transforms into what they wanted (apparently, this was a bigger deal in the original movie, but here's it's a one-off gag). During a family dinner, he reveals the genie's nature and gives each of his relatives three wishes, none of which go particularly well (someone is briefly wished to Hell).

He does at least repair his relationship with his daughter when he wishes her an elaborate dollhouse as a present and, more importantly, actually spends some time with her. He tries to fix things with his wife, but she's not ready to give it another try.

But this leads into the one wish where there are actually consequences. While redecorating, Bernard wished to swap out a soccer jersey framed on his wall with the Mona Lisa. It was sort of an offhand request treated as a joke, but of course, now the French authorities are looking for the painting and whatever master thief managed to steal it. Bernard doesn't realize any of that's going on until a genie-related fire brings the fire department into his apartment during the one time his supernatural servant isn't there to bail him out. The painting's discovered, and Bernard is arrested. He tells them the genie was his partner, so she'll end up at the station as well, and eventually uses the loudspeaker to wish to switch the objects back just before he can be extradited to France.

Now that the painting's back where it should be, Bernard and the genie are released. He wishes them back to his apartment before his wife arrives with their daughter and spends Christmas Eve with his kid... but not with his wife, who's concluded everyone's life has been improved by the separation.

On Christmas, he wishes the genie free, because of course that's what she really wants. She tells him he'll have three final wishes after she goes. She also reveals she lied earlier about time travel being off the table - the practice is dangerous, but not altogether out of bounds. And she leaves him with a clue to go back to right before he originally meant to leave work at the beginning of the movie.

Back at December 13th, he quits his job instead of staying late and buys his kid a dollhouse - not the massive one from the now-tangent timeline, but a nice, decent one. He then surprises his wife and daughter by bringing them to an expensive restaurant and uses his remaining wishes on minor things: getting them a table and ensuring they'll bring his kid the off-menu items she wants. Cute, but I can't help thinking a college fund might have been a better choice in the long run.

At any rate, the end of the movie jumps ahead three months to show the genie working at a pizza joint Bernard frequents. Mostly, this is just here to assure us everyone's happy.

I covered what I consider the movie's two main flaws at the start, so let's move on to what I like, which mainly boils down to Melissa McCarthy's performance. Her character doesn't really make sense conceptually (the script can't seem to decide whether she's oblivious to the modern world or if her wishes should have recognizably modern forms) but she plays the part with such enthusiasm and glee I couldn't help but have fun. She also delivers a few of the heavier moments with enough subtlety to sell the emotion. The movie doesn't really succeed as the dramedy it wants to be, but there are a few beats that work and they all hinge on her.

So. Let's talk Christmas. Or in this case, the evening of December 13th through the 25th, which makes for twelve days of wishes. I suspect this is a play on the Twelve Days of Christmas, despite the fact the actual Twelve Days start on the 25th and run through Epiphany. Interestingly enough, I'll be posting a review of an 80s movie that may have been using the 13th in a similar fashion this year. I wonder how many other films I've seen over the years played with a 12-day timeframe as a nod to the tradition (and/or the song).

Or perhaps it's just a coincidence here, though it really seems like "twelve days of wishes" as a stand-in for "twelve days of gifts" was likely an intentional reference, albeit a subtle one.

The movie's use of time travel also of course ties in with a long tradition of invoking the concept in holiday media. Hell, the concept of a tangent timeline almost certainly originated in A Christmas Carol: I'll always think of it as being at home in holiday media, no matter how many subgenres of science-fiction it bleeds into. 

But other than that, there's not a lot about this story requiring it to be set during the holidays. If anything, the timing actually feels a bit forced here. The movie rarely lets the audience forget Christmas is right around the corner, but while the time-travel connection is a nice one, there's nothing about the holidays that really connects in an interesting way to Bernard's arc. I actually think resolving this with time travel was the wrong choice: it invalidates what's occurred and robs everyone but Bernard and the genie of their memories.

Overall, the holidays feel extraneous in this movie - they might even detract a bit. It sounds like the bit about the genie granting the wishes of kids who ask Santa for gifts was more important in the original movie. I'm definitely planning to track that down and see if it offers more in this department.

Sadly, though, Genie isn't one you need to bother seeing unless you're a huge fan of McCarthy's work (in which case you won't be disappointed - her performance is the one bright spot here). As a whole, though, it works against itself and nullifies its own attempts at working as either a comedy or a dramedy.