Okay, so points for the cast, which include a certain grade of actor. Points also for a story for straying from the usual Hallmark script. And definitely points for the attempt to make train travel look appealing. Every year, there’s one prestige project that gets the bigger budget and rises, or at least hopes to rise, above the rest. Last year it was A Nutcracker Christmas (still a personal favorite), and this year it seems to be The Christmas Train. Despite some big names and an unconventional story, however, the movie never seems to know where it’s heading or how it wants to get there. It makes its mark by being different, but that turns out to be not so great or memorable.
With four film ac-teurs headlining, the acting is a cut above. They turn in subdued performances, which is a good thing when you’re talking about the spiritual home of Candace Cameron Bure. There’s rawhide Dermot Mulroney, who is not the typical slick haired hottie of the month – well, not anymore, but who still has a great voice and now some weathered charm. His lady is Kimberly Williams-Paisley, a mature alternative to the shiny young things who usually run the show. Joan Cusack is, well, Joan Cusack. More on her later. And then there’s Danny Glover, a low, rumbling presence. He proves that the only way Hallmark will feature a major black character is if he or she is played by a movie star, but even then the character will probably facilitate the romance and not actually partake in it.
Let’s fume about the movie though because, you know, focus. The problem with The Christmas Train is that while the actual train travels on a set track with known destinations, the story of said train doesn’t follow suit. Generally, the plot stretches from the East to the West Coast and is about a band of passengers, each with their own little heartwarmer of a story. An elderly man is trying to move on after the death of his wife. A young couple from different sides of the track want to elope. A lonely chess player proves that he has no friends, and never had or will have any. Joan Cusack plays a quirky character who’s just always…there.
The main romance though belongs to Tom (Mulroney) and Eleanor (Williams-Paisley), ex-colleagues, ex-war correspondents, and ex-lovers. Now, I know what you must be thinking: are we going to hear the story of Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway? Okay, so that’s what I was thinking. What we get is nowhere near as fiery. Instead, they’re two people who have taken things down a notch, in every aspect of their lives. Tom writes fluff pieces for a magazine and in fact is on assignment trying to write something about train travel. Eleanor has become a Hollywood script doctor and is accompanying a director (Glover) back to LA. Neither are in any meaningful relationship, and now they’ve got four days to try to make up for the past, if that’s what they want.
Who knows though? They are hot and cold with one another, sometimes nostalgic, sometimes indifferent, sometimes actually in love. Hmm, is that how real relationships work? No matter. The movie meanders too much around these and really all its other characters. If it gets bored with one, it checks in with another, just constantly going in circles. When the script decides things are too dull, it throws a few snowballs, one about a snowstorm, another about a thief (don’t expect Murder on the Orient Express levels intrigue). I wouldn’t mind so much if it sexed things up with an occasional view of the American landscape; I’ll trade story for beauty. But I suppose like a train ride, this one’s slow going. An actual train ride, however, offers a far more rewarding experience.
Dir: Ron Oliver
Writer: Neal H. Dobrofsky, Tippi Dobrofsky
Cast: Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Dermot Mulroney, Danny Glover, Joan Cusack, Holly Elissa, Kirsten Prout, Anthony Konechny, Jill Teed, Karen Holness, Terence Kelly
Time: 83 min
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel