Round and Round (2023)

Last year we made time to review a decent number of Hallmark holiday movies and found the recent entries quite a bit better on average than we expected. The best of the bunch was Hanukkah on Rye, a delightful classic romantic comedy I found funny and sweet. The movie received a bit of backlash due to what some viewers felt were stereotypes but otherwise seemed to be well received, so it's not too surprising to see a new entry this year. What is surprising is the premise: rather than play it safe with another straightforward romcom, Round and Round is a time loop movie in the vein of Groundhog Day or Palm Springs, both of which are namechecked and discussed by characters in Round and Round as they try to figure out the temporal disturbance at the movie's core.

I'll cut to the chase and reveal I don't think Round and Round is in quite the same league as its predecessor, but it's nevertheless a solid TV movie and - largely by default - probably the second-best Hanukkah movie ever made. It feels wrong to me that Hallmark movies should occupy the top two spots, but no one seems to be stepping up to challenge them.

I should also add it's unlikely this will receive the same kind of backlash that Hanukkah on Rye received. Unlike its predecessor, this isn't in any real way about the Jewish-American experience or Jewish culture. The characters don't fit into typical stereotypes (with the possible exception of a few minor characters), either. Barring something that went over my head (which I'll grant is possible), there's not a lot here I expect anyone to object to.

Though there is one really bizarre choice that should raise a few eyebrows. The movie uses the Modern English song, I Melt With You, at both the start and end to set the tone and play off the lyrics referencing stopping the world, here repurposed as a reference to stopping time. The only problem is that's not what the song is actually about - the title is intended as literal. It's about nuclear war.

So, yeah, probably not the best of choices for a lighthearted Hanukkah flick, Hallmark. My guess is they couldn't get the rights to something like Dead or Alive's "You Spin Me Round," which would have been a better fit. Sure, that song is about sex, but so is "I Melt With You," and "You Spin Me Round" doesn't involve the couple dying from nuclear radiation at the same time. I'm not sure any of this is a problem, but it's certainly distracting if you know the tune's background.

That song opens the movie, which starts with a flashback set at an '80s dance where a geeky teenage boy approaches the beautiful girl DJ'ing the dance. This is all being narrated by the movie's protagonist, Rachel, an editor and aspiring novelist played by Vic Michaelis, who informs us this was how her parents met and fell in love on the seventh night of Hanukkah, and it has become something of a fairytale in her family. In the present day, Rachel is woken up by her mother calling to remind her to pick up some donuts at a deli significant to her parents' story. We get a few hints about Rachel's job - she brags about it, despite clearly not loving it - and she talks about her boyfriend, a successful professor she's planning to bring to her family's Hanukkah celebration that night celebrating the anniversary of her parents' meeting.

Soon, she's picking up the donuts and trying to avoid conversation with a nosey stranger in line. She also fields a call from her boyfriend, who pretends to be sick to avoid attending the party with her. The donuts, incidentally, aren't long for this world, as a handsome man in a hurry named Zach (played by Bryan Greenberg) bumps into her almost immediately after, and the donuts are destroyed. He also drops a box he carries his D&D dice around in, which Rachel recovers.

(You bet your ass we'll be talking about Dungeons & Dragons later in this review.)

This would be what's called a meet-cute. In fact, Rachel's grandmother specifically calls it that later, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Said grandmother actually shows up with the Zach, who we learn is an aspiring comic book artist helping at the retirement community. She also presents Rachel with a family heirloom, an old dreidel that's supposed to "bring light into the life" of their family. Immediately after Rachel spins it, the curtains catch fire. No one's hurt, but it certainly puts a damper on things.

Soon after, as is customary in this subgenre, Rachel wakes up on the same day again. At first, she's bewildered, uncertain whether she can even believe what's occurring, but eventually she comes to accept it. And, to the movie's credit, once she does she approaches it pretty rationally, which is where this movie deviates from the usual conventions.

I mean, it kind of has to, because Hallmark was never going to permit the typical hedonistic and comically violent shenanigans that usually round these stories out. But whether or not it was out of necessity, that does mean this is the rare time loop movie where the person caught in the loop behaves responsibly and ethically. She wants to escape her predicament, not exploit it.

While she's not a huge nerd herself, Rachel isn't ignorant of pop culture: she's seen Groundhog Day, she knows what a time loop is, and she even refers to it by name when she asks for help. And seeing as she's just met a guy who is a huge nerd, he's the one she goes to.

Thanks to bits of knowledge she's obtained during her first few loops, she's able to convince Zach relatively easily she's not messing with him. In fact, doing so gets easier each iteration, as she learns more and more about him. Zach (aided by an even nerdier friend of his they recruit) approaches the problem like a movie plot, reasoning that Rachel needs to undergo some kind of transformation before she can escape. He needles her into tracking down and confronting her boyfriend, who shrugs off getting caught in a lie and takes the opportunity to break up with her.

Despite Rachel's best efforts, a couple things occur in every cycle: the donuts are always ruined, she always recovers Zach's dice box, and there's always a minor fire at her parents' party. Eventually, they get around to focusing on saving the donuts.

By this point, they're on day 7, and Rachel's changed as a person. She's more assertive, more courageous, and is ready to follow her dream and her heart. Also, she's fallen in love with Zach.

You know, basic rom-com stuff.

Only there are a couple complications. It turns out the new, active Rachel is more appealing to her current boyfriend, who shows up at the party. She'd neglected to mention the boyfriend in this loop, which angers Zach. In addition, it turns out all her attempts to escape the infinite time loop were unnecessary, as it was never going to be infinite in the first place.

The dreidel that started this just replays the seventh day of Hanukkah seven times, and it's a generational right of passage. The opening flashback was the final turn for her dad, and her older sister met her spouse the same way. Same goes for a bunch of her family.

Honestly, she should probably have been a lot more pissed off about not being warned. But then again, the magic dreidel did bring light into her life - over the course of the movie, she strengthened relationships with family, found the courage to pursue a career as a writer, and fell in love.

Only that last one still has some hurdles to clear, as Zach has reservations about the now ex-boyfriend Rachel forgot to mention, and - while he likes her quite a bit - for him it's only been one very odd day.

But Rachel fixes that. Remember that dice box? Rachel pulls out the dice, puts the dreidel in its place, and hands it to Zach, who touches it and remembers the seven days they spent together while "I Melt With You" plays.

Fortunately, no one dies of radiation poisoning.

Like I said at the outset, the movie is decent, but it isn't great. A couple things are holding it back, starting with the humor. The jokes aren't bad, mind you, but there weren't many that exceeded the level of moderately amusing. Likewise, the emotional journey doesn't have a great deal of weight, though I was a bit swept up during the montage at the end.

Of course, the premise isn't a new one. Even setting the famous examples aside, time loops have been a popular staple of Christmas TV movies for a few decades. This isn't even getting into the late 19th century short story, "Christmas Every Day," which sort of does a version of the premise sans temporal shenanigans. And of course all such stories - Groundhog Day included - are in a sense descended from A Christmas Carol, which is (as far as I've been able to tell) where the idea of a tangent timeline originated. But if you want to learn more about all that, we've got a half hour podcast episode you're welcome to listen to.

All that being said, I like the idea of using this premise for a Hanukkah movie specifically. Unlike Christmas, which (at least in its modern context) is functionally centered around a single day (okay, a day and change, if you want to count Christmas Eve), Hanukkah's structure is inherently repetitive, making a recursive loop a natural fit.

Unlike most movies centered around the holiday, Round and Round isn't primarily concerned with Hanukkah itself, nor is it really about Judaism. The former is used to accentuate the sense of magic around the premise, while the latter is a character beat, but this doesn't play up these aspects to anywhere near the extent Hanukkah on Rye did. 

You can see this in the sets, as well. Hanukkah on Rye basically followed a variation on the standard Hallmark/Lifetime Christmas romcom template by ensuring virtually every scene featured imagery connected to the holiday. Round and Round has a subtler approach in this respect. There are still a lot of visual reminders you're watching a Hanukkah movie, but it's nowhere near as constant. Likewise, this doesn't avoid the occasional Christmas tree or other yuletide display when it makes sense for one to be present. 

I think this is important because it provides Jewish viewers an opportunity to experience a narrative in which their culture is given room to exist as a normal element, similar to the way Christmas is usually presented in non-Hallmark media. To put it another way, this is a movie where I don't feel the need to lay out my complicated relationship with my own Jewish heritage at the start of the review.

And speaking of my culture, I do need to take this movie to task for messing up several nerd references, particularly concerning the portrayal of Dungeons & Dragons. The terms used were accurate, but the way they were strung together, as well as the moments they were invoked, were mostly nonsense. Likewise, there's a significant character beat in which a couple minor characters bond over a shared interest in Marvel movies, and one - the owner of a comic shop - expresses extreme surprise that a thirty-year-old woman has seen all the Marvel movies and shows, despite the MCU having been mainstream for at least a-- [remaining 14,000-word rant redacted out of respect for our readers].

To be fair, the movie is far better in its handling of time-travel references. If there were any errors in their descriptions of Groundhog Day, I didn't catch them. I'd have liked a bit more attention to detail around how the intraday timelines played out (some of the recurring days seemed to have far more occur than would have been plausible in a single day), but that's a minor nitpick. I was also fine with the way DC movies were discussed (agreed on the Donner Superman). I appreciated the callout to Paper Girls, as well.

Moving on to things that actually matter, let's talk LGBTQ+ representation, an area Hallmark historically struggled with but has improved considerably. I'm actually not certain what pronouns Rachel's sister's spouse uses (if the movie told us, I missed it), but the character is either a queer woman or nonbinary. Regardless, they're a happily married couple who are raising a family together, a fact the movie rightly never treats as abnormal or in need of any explanation. There's a separate recurring joke when Rachel's asked about her love life by a nosey (but ultimately well-meaning) woman in line that both stands out as one of the funnier gags in the movie and establishes the expectation that someone's sexual preferences shouldn't default to straight.

I'm not saying this should win any awards for continuing a tradition of relegating queer characters to the sidelines, a practice Hallmark has still only strayed from a few times, but I did feel like these moments were a great deal more natural and authentic that, say, the stereotypical gay best friends the studio used to pass off as representation.

While Round and Round falls well short of greatness, that's less important overall than its existence. There remain so few Hanukkah movies out there that the significance of one existing in a niche genre is probably a bigger deal than how many stars or thumbs it deserves.