THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Noel - which is now available to buy on DVD - intentionally tries to capture the feeling of an old-fashioned Christmas movie. It has a fearless optimism about human nature, and it is designed to give you a case of the warm fuzzies when you watch it. This is the kind of picture that some people will cherish as a holiday perennial, while others will be kind of turned off its admittedly saccharine quality.

There are several main characters. Susan Sarandon plays Rose, a lonely, unhappy divorcee caring for her ailing mother. While at the hospital, she meets a stranger named Charlie, played by an unbilled Robin Williams. They encounter each other again later, while theyíre both standing perilously on a bridge. Instead of jumping in, they make a decision to talk about their misery, but thereís something kind of ethereal about the stranger. Without giving anything away, the resolution of his identity proves to be an inspiration to Rose.

Meanwhile, Penelope Cruz plays Nina, a young woman who is engaged to her possessive and jealous cop boyfriend Mike (Paul Walker). When he gets the wrong idea about her friendship with another guy, Mike flies into a rage. Consequently, Nina leaves him. His attempts to get her back are hindered by Artie Venzuela (Alan Arkin), a guy who believes that Mike is the reincarnation of his deceased wife. Mike is weirded out by the odd man but, again, the resolution of Artieís story proves to be an inspiration to Mike.

Finally, thereís Jules (Marcus Thomas) who came from an abusive home. The only happy Christmas he ever had was the one he spent in a hospital. To recapture the magic, Jules arranges to have his hands broken so that he can spend the holiday in the ER. (O-kay.)

The draw of Noel is certainly the cast. A fine group of actors has been assembled, and they are all good in the film. The performances effectively draw you in, especially Alan Arkinís. You donít know if his character is crazy or if he knows something nobody else does. A good cast can often elevate the material (at least somewhat) and thatís true here. Because we like these actors, itís easy to become involved in what they are doing on screen.

Make no mistake, though: the material definitely needs elevated. This is one of those movies that doesnít appear to be set on Earth. The characters say and do things that real people wouldnít do. I mean, if some guy thought you were his reincarnated wife, would you invite him into your home for cookies? Would you break your own hands just so that you could go to a hospital Christmas party? Would you spontaneously tell the comatose body of a complete stranger that you love him (as Rose does)?

I recognize the fact that Noel is trying to be positive and uplifting without being overtly spiritual. Itís just that this approach makes the film seemÖwell, square. Viewers with a taste for blatant sentimentality may find great meaning in the different plot threads. You certainly canít fault the intention to make sweet, PG-rated holiday entertainment. I guess that I happen to be one of those people who need some realism with my sentimentality. Noel seems so far removed from real life that it failed to connect with me. I just didnít find any personal meaning in it.

The movie is not bad by any stretch of the imagination, and I can see it finding an appreciative audience. The performances are solid, no doubt, and the film is pleasant to watch. The plot threads all resolve themselves in ways designed to reflect the magic of Christmas. I think director Chazz Palminteri and writer David Hubbard tried too hard. The sentiments are right on the money, but the execution never quite filled me with holiday cheer.

( out of four)

Noel is rated PG for sensuality, thematic material and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 36 minutes.

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