The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)
104 min., rated PG.
“The Man Who Invented Christmas” is almost a mirthful delight, but it’s more of a handsome bore that doesn’t become the gift that will keep on giving. As if inspired by 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love,” 2004’s “Finding Neverland” and 2017’s “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” director Bharat Nalluri (2008’s “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day”) and screenwriter Susan Coyne seem to use a familiar recipe, taking one crucial moment from Charles Dickens’ real life that would inspire his beloved, immortal 1843 novel, “A Christmas Carol.” It is an adaptation of Les Standiford’s 2008 non-fiction book, but as the film plays out, one would rather be watching a biopic that isn’t so surface-level or any of the hundred cinematic adaptations of “A Christmas Carol” (1988’s enjoyable, satirically biting Bill Murray-starrer “Scrooged” is a personal favorite) instead of a hybrid of both. “The Man Who Invented Christmas” is innocuous as a genteel, glossy trifle about the inventor of a then-minor holiday but clunkier and duller than it should be.
Following his success of “Oliver Twist,” revered London writer Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) is the toast of the town in New York City, 1842. One year and three consecutive flops later, Charles is experiencing writer’s block, up to his eyeballs in debt and in desperate need of a rebound, particularly now as he and wife Kate (Morfydd Clark) have their fifth baby on the way. When his publisher is hesitant about the writer’s latest pitch about a miser finding redemption on Christmas Eve, he decides to publish it himself. As Charles tries working, his father (Jonathan Pryce) and mother (Ger Ryan) arrive unexpectedly to stay with their son, and his Irish maid, Tara (Anna Murphy), opens his eyes to pulp literature, which would bring about his creations of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come. As he races to complete his book, Charles envisions a grave digger (Christopher Plummer) he witnesses as the “humbug”-muttering Ebenezer Scrooge and begins seeing and talking to unseen apparitions during his writing process.
“The Man Who Invented Christmas” offers intriguing facets of Charles Dickens, like his affection for the poor and disenfranchised in his stories, as little Charles was forced to work at a shoe polish factory after his father was sent to debtors’ prison. Beyond that, though, the script is more schematic than insightful, name-checking every recognizable creative inspiration before the light bulb goes off in Charles’ head, like his searching for the name “Scrooge" and someone reciting the line, "God Bless Us, Everyone." And, if cynics ever hated how Scrooge turned to mush and helped Tiny Tim in “A Christmas Carol,” we can all apparently thank Charles’ maid Tara. Charming, lively and sometimes muggy, Dan Stevens is, for the most part, the movie as Charles Dickens, while a perfectly scowling Christopher Plummer is ace-in-the-hole casting as Ebenezer Scrooge that it’s a wonder he never played the part in a traditional adaptation of Dickens’ tale. The production is solid enough, sometimes resembling that of a made-for-TV movie, and the energy level hums along with a jaunty score. “The Man Who Invented Christmas” isn’t a bad film that will make audiences grumble “Bah, Humbug,” just a frustratingly bland one that comes closer to being Cinematic Ambien.