Film Review: 'The Christmas Setup'
Lifetime's first gay Christmas romance has a stellar cast, a ton of heart, and a surprise helping of depth.
A hard-working New York lawyer striving for a promotion, Hugo Spencer (Ben Lewis) is using his Christmas break to return home to Milwaukee to visit family. Joining him is his lifelong best friend Madelyn "Maddie" McKay (Ellen Wong), with both receiving a warm welcome from Hugo's forever chipper mother Kate (Fran Drescher). As Hugo, Maddie, and Hugo's army brother Aiden (Chad Connell) get roped into helping Kate with their town's upcoming Christmas Eve festival, Hugo is suddenly reunited with Patrick Ryan (Blake Lee), a classmate from high school.
Patrick was also Hugo's crush back in the day, and as the two begin to spend more time together, those teenage feelings return. But when Hugo gets a call from his boss offering him a promotion to partner that would require him to move to their London firm, he's left uncertain of what he wants to do. Will Hugo go after the promotion he's been working for, or take a chance on what he could have in Milwaukee with Patrick?
Having been working to try and cover all the landmark LGBT-inclusive made-for-TV Christmas movies from this year, I would be remiss if I didn't cover the biggest one of all. Not only is The Christmas Setup the first Lifetime Christmas movie to focus on a gay romance, it's also got plenty of representation ingrained into it. The two male love interests are played by a married couple, and the director helming the project--Pat Mills in his Lifetime debut--is openly gay. We're also treated to a terrific script courtesy of Michael J. Murray, which not only brings all the expected holiday cheer, but uses the LGBT+ aspect as more than just window dressing. Instead, he infuses that element into the story in a way that's sure to make it especially touching to those within the community.
At the same time, The Christmas Setup still makes sure to keep the atmosphere lighthearted, landing right in between Dashing in December and A New York Christmas Wedding in terms of its Escapism/Realism ratio. Plot-wise, the story is a mixture of several recognizable made-for-TV Christmas movie plots: returning home for Christmas and finding love, saving a beloved business from being closed down, choosing between a career and a chance at love, etc. It's nothing any Hallmark junkie hasn't seen time and time again, but the familiarity is lessened by Murray's script and the charismatic cast Mills is working with. Given that they're married, it shouldn't be too surprising that the chemistry between Ben Lewis and Blake Lee is exceptional. Both men bring a sweet sincerity to their characters, bouncing well off each other whether they're trading playful jabs or sharing tender moments.
Lewis in particular is endearing when it comes to Hugo's awkward side, from his reaction to seeing Patrick again to his realistically nervous musical performance later in the film. While Hugo's bouts of Scrooge-esque whining get a little annoying, they don't last too long or long enough to take away from Hugo and Patrick's bond.
WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW
But when it comes to Patrick, his otherwise super likable character is marred by an inexplicable moment during the third act. While initially as supportive of Hugo's potential move to London as everyone else, Patrick suddenly does a 180 reversal by deciding to essentially break up with Hugo because of it. Not only is this an uncharacteristically selfish decision for Patrick, but it's immensely out of character as a whole for the more confident of the leads to do this. It would've made more sense for Hugo to do this, given his initial uncertainty about his and Patrick's relationship. And in the end, this conflict between Hugo and Patrick is resolved as suddenly as it was introduced, with the abruptness of it and the fact that Patrick doesn't apologize for his actions only adding insult to injury.
(Though on a positive note, this conflict does highlight Kate's best quality: her quiet selflessness. Despite her smothering tendencies and initial upset reaction to learning about Hugo's promotion, she still congratulates her son and encourages him to do what makes him happy--even if it takes him further from the nest than she'd prefer. Her acceptance of Aiden's army career and whole-hearted support of Hugo's orientation are also mute testimony to this subtler side of Kate's personality)
Apart from that hiccup, The Christmas Setup's script redeems itself for the slow and familiar feeling it sometimes takes on. Rather than just cast two guys as this Hallmark-esque romance and leave it at that, Murray uses the sexuality of its main characters to craft an underlying theme about diversity and the struggles of LGBT+ individuals. In addition to direct conversation and references to Hugo and Patrick's shared sexuality and their town's efforts to become more welcoming to the LGBT+ community, there's also the subplot revolving around SPOILER ALERT the local train station's original owner Carroll and his secret lover Ashby. It not only plays into that underlying theme, but serves as the inspiring catalyst for Hugo and Patrick's reconciliation.
The finale perfectly illustrates the film's theme through a parallel: Hugo and Patrick publicly sharing a final kiss (as photographed by Kate) on the same train platform where years prior, Carroll and Ashby could only discreetly hold pinkies. It's a beautiful finale that brings a lot more weight to Hugo and Patrick's relationship by backdropping it against the history of LGBT+ individuals having to hide their feelings for fear of backlash. Things may not be perfect, the movie says, but we're on a better path than we were in years past. The movie also ends on a somewhat ambiguous note regarding whether or not Hugo takes the job in London, and while that might get under some people's skin, I didn't mind since it aligns with what Hugo and Patrick take away from Carroll and Ashby's forbidden love. As they see it, if Carroll and Ashby could live through a time period of homophobia and stay together, they can do the same if Hugo ends up going to London. Spoilers Over
The cast surrounding Lewis and Lee are just as exceptional, with the iconic Fran Drescher being a marvel as Kate Spencer. While her behavior with her sons (particularly Hugo) borders on "Smother Mother" territory, Drescher keeps Kate's actions from getting annoying or toxic. Instead, Kate is a consistently fun and quirky woman, with the latter half of the movie showing how behind her eccentricities, Kate truly loves her sons and wants them to be happy above all else. Ellen Wong is a sweetheart as Hugo's supportive best friend, while Chad Connell is similarly likable as Hugo's brother as he begins to reconnect with Hugo and pursue a relationship with Maddie.
There's a nice bit of subtle irony to having Maddie and Aiden's relationship development be a minor subplot to Hugo and Patrick's center staged romance. Whether intentional or not, it's a nice allusion to how often media has--and in some cases, still does--sideline gay storylines in favor of straight ones. Aiden being played by the openly gay Connell (a regular Hallmark actor who previously appeared on this blog in my review of last year's Double Holiday) only adds to the effect. It all culminates into an engaging subtext that makes The Christmas Setup feel like a stealthy dissertation against the less-than-inclusive history of made-for-TV holiday films. After the fiasco that rocked the Hallmark channel last December, it's a very cathartic theme for Lifetime's first unapologetically gay romance to have.
When you ignore the LGBT aspect, The Christmas Setup doesn't seem to have a lot going on with it. The plot has all the typical Hallmark trappings, and there are some moments when that familiarity becomes too much for the movie's own good. But once you get into the film and see what script builds on those standard plot beats, something special emerges. The story injects its Hallmark-ian plot with a motif concerning the challenges and hardships faced by the LGBT+ community, adding more weight to the central love story than similar stories by bringing historical reality into the mix. At the same time, The Christmas Setup remembers to keep things upbeat enough to make for a warm and inviting watch. The excellent cast brings that heartfelt atmosphere to life, as do the lovable characters they all play. As Lifetime's first (but hopefully not last) gay Christmas romance, The Christmas Setup is a great success and a hopeful harbinger of things to come for the channel's next batch of holiday premieres.
Score: 8.5 out of 10 bittersweet chocolate truffles.
About the Creator
Aspiring writer and film lover: Lifetime, Hallmark, indie, and anything else that strikes my interest. He/him.
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