Review: Dolly Parton's Christmas on the Square Is a Gingerbread Hallucination for the Whole Family
Christine Baranski plays the Grinch to one middle-American Whoville.
A Christmas musical composed by and starring Dolly Parton? Sign me up! That was my initial response to learning about Christmas on the Square, the latest movie-musical from Netflix. The final product left me less enthused, although not entirely without holiday cheer. The venture feels like an attempt by Netflix to capture from Hallmark part of the apparently vast market for Christmas movies that are as disposable as greeting cards. As a musical, Christmas on the Square regularly changes keys from cute to ridiculous. Still, there are things to admire about this gingerbread hallucination, scored by and starring a living legend.
Parton is arguably the most consistent songwriter of her generation. She ranks among Stephen Foster and Irving Berlin in her contribution to American music, and she does not disappoint here, delivering 14 new songs, several of them instantly hummable. Parton's musicianship is matched only by her entrepreneurship, which has brought work and material comfort to her native East Tennessee, both through the Dollywood Company and her various philanthropic efforts. Parton grew up poor and has never forgotten her Appalachian roots despite spending a half-century twinkling in the constellation of American stars. That background informs Maria S. Schlatter's heavy-handed screenplay about an American town facing ruin by a greedy landlord.
That would be town heiress Regina Fuller (Christine Baranski), who seeks to displace the good people of Fullerville right as Christmas approaches. "Gotta get out of this place," she sings as she pulls up in her Mercedes with an armful of eviction notices. She's selling the land under the town to Cheetah Mall, which will replace all the mom-and-pop shops with, among other horrors, a hundred-screen cinema that serves sushi (surely a bad investment in the age of COVID and Netflix).
Organizing the resistance is Pastor Christian (Josh Segarra), Fullerville's sexy (but sensitive) Christian pastor. He gets an assist from a guardian angel (Parton) disguised as a magical homeless lady (we know she is magical from the first moments of the film when she appears wreathed in Christmas sparkle). The angel helps Regina remember her late father's founding ethos: "Keep the rents low and the spirits high."
The molasses-dipped Marxism of Schlatter's screenplay is most compelling when the sweetness rubs off to reveal the bitter fruit underneath, like in the ensemble number "The Wicked Witch of the Middle" in which one woman repeatedly suggests a blunt solution for Regina: "Maybe we'll just rough her up a little." Unfortunately, no one questions the feudal logic of allowing one family to own every parcel of land in town — doesn't anyone remember Pottersville?
Rougher than the script's politics is its exposition. Schlatter's characters have a tendency to broadcast their motivation and obstacles all in the same opening line: Toasting her husband with eggnog, Pastor Christian's wife (Mary Jane Haskell) opines, "Getting fertility treatments is better than anything that comes in paper." Later, when Schlatter raises the stakes with an imperiled child, a character in a lab coat arrives and announces, "I'm Doctor Martinez: pediatric neurosurgeon flown in from Kensington." The actor, Yvonne Valadez, delivers this character description masquerading as a line as naturally as possible, which is important considering we never see or hear from her again.
Baranski plasters over the rough masonry of the script with an emotionally grounded performance. She's a lady Scrooge calloused by the culture's relentless demonization of pushy white women. Ten years ago, she would have been lauded for her business savvy with a chorus of Yaaas queen, lean in! — but times have changed. Treat Williams offers an assist in explaining Regina's journey from hope to resentment through a quietly heartbreaking performance as Carl, an estranged high school sweetheart who now sells tchotchkes on the square. "This isn't even a general store anymore," Regina says, fingering his wares. "It's just a second-hand shop filled with broken dolls and broken dreams." The line is a howler, but Baranski makes it somewhat plausible.
Parton's score helps move the story along with toe-tapping efficiency. The opening number, "Christmas Is," hooks us with its musical thesis. Playing Regina's hairdresser bestie, Jenifer Lewis does a respectable job with one of the weaker numbers, which involves her delivering jazzy riffs while slathering Baranski's face in green goop. The radio-ready anthem "Don't Let Your Chance Go By" arrives just in time to lift the town from its despair. Matthew Johnson delivers a stirring performance of the ballad "Father's Prayer." And the whole town is moved by the spirit in the gospel number "Try Try."
Director Debbie Allen choreographs these group scenes with theatrical flair, bringing a little bit of Broadway into our living rooms. Ina Mayhew's production design feels like a nod to MGM in its artificial perfection. So what if there's a lyrical dancer swinging around the lamp posts in fakey Fuller square? This is the stuff of classic movie musicals. Some of the more ambitious visual effects fall flat — but hopefully by the time you see Dolly hovering above the congregation in her angelic glory, you'll be enough nogs in to enjoy the camp value.
Even more than the musical dance breaks and angel magic, viewers may find the utopian world of Fullerville the most fantastical aspect of Christmas on the Square. This is a multicultural middle-American hamlet where everyone knows everyone, there are no empty storefronts, and the town gays vogue their way right into a racially integrated church, where they are loved and accepted by their fellow parishioners. It truly is like nowhere I've ever been.
Yet if Fullerville feels alien to our culturally balkanized America, it is our fault for settling for how things are, not Dolly & Co.'s fault for dreaming of how they might be. And if we could make our little corners of the world a little more like Fullerville, we too might be just as enthusiastic about saving them. That would be a real Christmas miracle.