Film Review: 'Midnight at the Magnolia'
Radio host besties fake a relationship in this botched New Year's romance flick with strong leads.
Maggie Quinn (Natalie Hall) and Jack Russo (Evan Williams) have literally known each other their entire lives. They grew up together as childhood friends, with their families having always been close thanks to their fathers co-owning The Magnolia, a local jazz club. And now, Maggie and Jack are themselves business partners in a way, giving relationship advice for a local radio show. With the new year around the corner, Maggie and Jack's producer Deb (Alison Brooks) gives them some great news: they're being considered for national syndication. Hoping to impress their potential new boss, Maggie and Jack agree to Deb's suggestion they do a New Year's Eve special--during which they'll introduce their significant others to their families.
But then a bombshell hits: Maggie and Jack are simultaneously dumped, leaving them without partners for the special. Not wanting to jeopardize their chances of going national, Maggie reluctantly agrees to Jack's idea: pretend that they're now a couple. At first, the ruse goes off without a hitch, with Maggie and Jack being surprised by how many people in their lives thought they'd be good together. But as New Year's Eve grows closer and their time together brings memories and past grievances back to mind, what surprises will December 31st bring for these friends turned fake lovers?
With 2021 at our doorstep, I thought it would only be fitting to cover this recently released New Year's Eve romance flick that comes from familiar-to-my-review-plate company MarVista Entertainment. While premiering on Netflix, the movie follows a "Fake Love to Real Love" setup that should ring a few bells for anyone with Hallmark viewing experience. There's even a "Save the Beloved Family Business" subplot going on in the background. But unlike my previous review subject (which also had something of a familiar storyline), Midnight at the Magnolia stumbles quite a bit when it comes to its writing. The cast gives it their best with what they have, especially the main leads, but there's only so much they can do to rise above the script.
In the beginning, it seemed like Midnight at the Magnolia was off to a good start thanks to the aforementioned leads. Natalie Hall and Evan Williams bounce perfectly off each other as Maggie and Jack, making both their lifelong friendship and success as a radio duo believable. They're just as effective on their own as they are together, with Williams being every bit as charming and lovable as he was in A Date by Christmas Eve. While Hall and Williams (along with the rest of the cast) suffer from scattered instances of awkward delivery, they're still able to give Midnight at the Magnolia much of its heart. Both are able to truly capture their characters' emotions as things begin to fall apart by the third act. Williams shares a memorably beautiful scene with Steve Cumyn (in a Danza role as Maggie's father Steve), after which he flawlessly captures through his eyes and tone Jack's realization about the gravity of his scheme and how badly it could hurt the people he cares about.
Ironically, it's when Maggie and Jack's fake relationship ploy begins to go pear-shaped that Carley Smale's script starts doing the same. Maggie and Jack start the usual beats of realizing their feelings for each other may not be as platonic as they thought, but a wrench is thrown into the mix when Maggie recalls how Jack has apparently made a habit of being selfish and taking her for granted. The thing is, this revelation comes completely out of the blue and doesn't align with the unblemished friendship Maggie and Jack have before they start fake-dating. SPOILER ALERT From what we hear of Jack's younger years, the only time he ever cast Maggie aside for something "cooler and sexier" was when he decided to break their "Go to Prom Together" pact to go with Bianca Bell.
You'd think a grown woman would have gotten over something like that by now. But no, Maggie and her sister Amanda (played by Victoria Maria) still hold on to that adolescent "betrayal" and Maggie uses Jack accidentally missing one dinner date because of his surprise run-in with Bianca as an excuse to blow up at him. It's a baffling turn of events, and the harsh vibe left by Maggie and Jack's falling-out has a bitter aftertaste that lasts even throughout the heartwarming finale. In fact, that heaviness was enough to make me think Midnight at the Magnolia was going to take Maggie and Jack's relationship down a different route--with Jack getting back together with Bianca, Maggie getting back together with Hunter, and the two leads coming to realize they really are better as friends. It would've aligned well with how Maggie and Jack's relationship begins suffering when they're only pretending to be romantically involved. But instead, things go the expected route, and with Maggie and Jack's relationship development being as clunky as it is, Hall and Williams' strong emotional acting and chemistry isn't enough to make it work all that well. Spoilers Over
Another aggravating character to be found in Midnight at the Magnolia is Deb Clarkson. Alison Brooks gives a nice enough performance in Deb's better moments, but in others, Deb comes across as a self-serving producer who cares more about her show than about her colleagues' feelings. She's the one to come up with the totally considerate suggestion of broadcasting Maggie and Jack's personal lives over the airwaves, and as the film goes on, she consistently seems more worried about the show suffering as a result of Maggie and Jack's relationship breakdown than anything else. So with that, Midnight at the Magnolia makes the second movie I've reviewed where Brooks appears as an Unintentionally Unsympathetic character.
Thankfully, the supporting cast is quite a bit more likable. Like the pre-derailment protagonists, the Quinn and Russo families (barring the aforementioned Amanda) are thoroughly sweet. The previously mentioned Steve Cumyn and Michael Gordin Shore are each effectively warm and energetic as Maggie and Jack's respective fathers, with their sadly underseen bromance being a cute little highlight of the movie. Another highlight is how Steve is set up to be an infuriating Overprotective Dad archetype, only for that dated trope to be subverted when he gleefully celebrates Maggie and Jack's "relationship" as much as everyone else. This ultimately leads to the previously mentioned scene between Steve and Jack that thoroughly rejects that archaic character type.
Susan Hamann joins in the lovefest as Jack's mother Bev while Peter Michael Dillon makes a charming cameo as Judd Crawford. Olivier Renaud is similarly charismatic as Maggie's endearingly dorky ex-boyfriend Hunter. While his introductory jealousy of Maggie and Jack's friendship and subsequent over-the-phone breakup from the former doesn't speak highly of him, Renaud gives Hunter a sweet side that comes to light when he and Maggie encounter each other again later in the movie. Had Midnight at the Magnolia gone down the alternate path I detailed in the Spoiler section, I could see Renaud's performance being able to fully redeem Hunter for his bad first impression. I also think it would've been a good change for Jack's ex Bianca, as it might've given Hannah Gordon better dialogue to work with than the stale and exposition-heavy material she's stuck with.
It's a shame that Midnight at the Magnolia drops the (Times Square) ball so hard when it comes to writing. The chemistry of its leads was excellent at the movie's start--as was their acting--and the cast surrounding them don't fall far behind. And the finale, with its significant callbacks and general tender atmosphere, could've made for a lovely closer. But in between, you have to endure some very confusing and nonsensical changes in the main characters' relationship and a main heroine whose previously likable personality gets put through the shredder. It gets reset in time for the conclusion, but by then, the damage is done. At that point, you'll only have half your heart invested in seeing Maggie and Jack get that new year's kiss. Hall and Williams' performances and the rest of the cast's earnest efforts salvage as much quality as they can, but ultimately, Midnight at the Magnolia is far from the best movie to toast a new year to.
Though given all that's happened in 2020, it does make sense that my last review of this year would be for a subpar movie...
Score: 4.5 out of 10 champagne flutes.