In Movies & TV Reviews

Kimberly Williams-Paisley and Dermot Mulroney star in "The Christmas Train," which is ... legitimately good?

Matt's Hallmark Holiday Hell: "The Christmas Train"

On November 9th, 2017, during an OnMilwaukee editorial meeting, pop culture editor Matt Mueller brought up the craze of Hallmark Christmas movies. It was a decision he would come to immediately regret, as he was quickly forced assigned to watch a new Hallmark movie a week during the holiday season and write about his discoveries and loss of dignity.

These are the chronicles of Matt's Hallmark holiday hell.

"The Christmas Train"

Any misplaced enthusiasm I had for this weekly column was pretty briskly dashed by "Finding Santa" last week. So let's see what's next ... hold on, Dermot Mulroney? What are you doing here? And Joan Cusack? DANNY GLOVER!? This ... this almost looks like a real movie! It's a St. Nicholas Day miracle!

Mad Libs plot summary

A big-city and/or corporate former war correspondent turned fluff piece writer arrives in a small town in the hopes of finding a story for an article. In the process, he stumbles into a lovely former writing partner and girlfriend who's fallen out of love with the holidays thanks to ... uh, nothing, she's fine with Christmas, but also is stuck on this train with our lead for four days trying to write her first solo screenplay. Will he find the story he needs for his article, while also thawing her frozen, Grinch-like heart? And will they find the greatest Christmas gift of all ... love?

Hot chocolate, chirpy relationship commentary from a best friend character and adoring looks from Danny Glover(!) ensue.

Except it's not a small town, it's a train. And also everyone seems pleasant and not at all bitter or Scrooge-y about the holidays. And also I had to change all the pronouns to masculine since it's a rare Hallmark male lead. And then Johnny Depp gets murdered and Inspector Hercule Poirot has to solve the, wait, wrong snowy train movie ...

Who stars?

But actually: Dermot Mulroney, what are you doing here? You starred in "My Best Friend's Wedding," a Clint Eastwood movie (OK, fine, "J. Edgar," but still!) and one of my favorite movies of all time, "Zodiac." And now you're here? Do you need to borrow some bucks, man? Did they accidentally mean to call Dylan McDermott?

No matter the reasoning, I'm happy to see you! And you too, Joan Cusack – who also starred in another one of my favorite movies of all time, "High Fidelity" (probably put your headphones on for this clip).

Joan Cusack is a national treasure.

As for you, Danny Glover, keep getting those checks. You are EXACTLY old enough for this sh*t. Fun fact: The last time Dermot Mulroney and Danny Glover were in a movie together, it was ... "Dirty Grandpa." Nowhere to go but up!

Holly jolly or holy hell?

You feel a lot of things during Hallmark holiday movies. Swooning romance. Christmas cheer. An existential dread that this – this? – is what you're doing with your life. But "The Christmas Train" provided me with a truly unexpected emotional sensation: intrigue.

That intrigue started with the overqualified cast – and they all pleasantly lived up to their reputations rather than down to a Hallmark movie's expectations. No one's trying particularly hard, but then again no one's watching particularly hard either.

Dermot Mulroney is definitely here to collect a quick check, but he's still a welcoming, compelling presence – and Mulroney mailing it in is better than most of the soap opera actors or fluoride toothpaste spokepeople one usually expects. Danny Glover's voice is like a warm hug, and even if the movie and role is below him – his character is a big-time director named, and this is serious, Max Powers; nice accidental "The Simpsons" reference! – he's still a lot of pleasant, amicable fun on screen.

Kimberly Williams-Paisley has an effortless, everyday winning charm to her performance, and Joan Cusack brightens up every scene (aka not enough of them) with her oddball energy. I wanted a whole movie about her character – forget that, I want an entire Hallmark television series about this weirdo train stalker lady. Get ready for a pitch meeting, Hallmark executives.

Shockingly, the intrigue didn't stop after the title card rolled. Normally, Hallmark movies follow five standard storylines, mixing and matching certain elements. Nothing's actually surprising; it's just a surprise which combination of cliches you get in a particular film.

But "The Christmas Train" actually had twists and compelling mysteries beyond, "Will the attractive leads fall in love?" Is the one passenger actually a psychic? Who keeps stealing random knick-knacks from the entire train? Is this the Hallmark Channel's version of David Fincher's "The Game"? IS DANNY GLOVER GOD!? I truly didn't know where the story was going to go. For at least half the film, I was convinced Joan Cusack was a ghost. I eventually reached a point where I was convinced everyone on the train was a ghost, that this was some weird purgatory train of regretful people and lost souls.

This is still a Hallmark movie, though, so very few of these mysteries paid off as interestingly as they started (not to spoil anything, but there's not a single ghost *sigh*), and the main story still hits plenty of the predictable, cornball beats. But the fact that I wrote with a straight face that I didn't want to spoil anything about the story tells you this is above the usual Hallmark run of cliches and tropes. This was the first time watching a Hallmark holiday flick that it wasn't just festive background noise, that I was actively watching it invested in where the story and characters might go.

In other words, it was actually solid, compelling entertainment that I stopped watching as an enforced assignment and watched instead as a riveted, amused viewer. Now, if you excuse me, I have to go stare at myself in the mirror and see if I recognize who I even am anymore.

Verdict: Holly jolly

Drinking game drunken-ness score

Not that I needed any more excuses to drink heavily while watching Hallmark holiday movies, but thanks to Wide Open Eats, I found this Hallmark drinking game created last winter by human saint Brittany Graves and posted on Facebook. So let's go through the checklist and see how crushed we can get off Christmas cliches!

(PHOTO: Brittany Graves Facebook)

  • Reference to a dead relative? Does it count if it's just a supporting character – in this case, a sweet old man whose wife recently passed away? I nominate yes. DRINK!
  • Christmas-y main character name? Nope – but did I mention that Glover's character is seriously named MAX FREAKING POWERS?! I FOUND AN EXCUSE TO DRINK AGAIN!
  • Fake Christmas tree disses? No one ever disses fake Christmas trees in these movies. This category makes me sad – but it makes my liver happy. STOP DRINKING!
  • Newcomer in old-timey tradition? I mean, the whole movie is about people riding a cross-country train. If only everybody wrote their articles and screenplays on typewriters too. DRINK AGAIN!
  • Hot chocolate? I was concerned we'd miss this one when a bartender was introduced serving up holiday drink specials, like "The Grinch." But then he whipped up some hot cocoa for Tom – complete with whipped cream! WEEEE DRINKKKKKK!
  • Near-miss kiss? You bet – a good one too, complete with Tom's girlfriend coming out of nowhere like the Kool-Aid Man! DRIIII(I might have a problem)IIIIIINK!
  • Product placement? I was wondering why Amtrak would so happily put its logo on a movie in which the entire cast almost freezes to death, stuck on the tracks in the middle of nowhere in a snow storm on Christmas. But then the final line is something like, "I'm not saying riding a train will change your life, but it changed mine." MONEY WELL SPENT, AMTRAK! Also, a special Hallmark-branded ornament gets a lingering two seconds of screen time. UNO, DOS BEBIDAS!
  • Snowball fight or ice skating? There should've been an ice rink train car in "Snowpiercer." Alas, nowhere to be found – and nowhere to be found here either. HALT-COHOL!
  • Ugly sweater or tie? No ugly sweaters or ties, but Eleanor wears a lazy sweater and jeans for the big wedding WHEN YOU'VE SEEN HER WEAR NICER CLOTHES THROUGHOUT THE FILM! What a fashion faux pas. STAY PARCHED!
  • Big city person in small town? In a small train, maybe. But nope. MY DRINK IS SO WATERED DOWN NOW!
  • Caroling, tree farming or cookie baking? No cookie baking or tree farming, but around the midway point, the train snags some young caroling boys and JOY TO THE WORLD; I CAN DRINK AGAIN!
  • Mistletoe? That near-miss kiss comes not only with mistletoe, but a brief history lesson on the significance of mistletoe! THE MORE YOU KNOW, THE MORE YOU CAN (*burps*) DRINK!
  • Magic deal with Santa/angel? As magical as the presence of Joan Cusack is, I have to say no. Even the psychic on board was a lie! NO DEAL, NO DRINK!
  • Anytime time you hear "Jingle Bells"? Oh, you know those random caroling boys bust out "Jingle Bells." SCOTCH, SCOTCH, SCOTCH, DOWN IN MAH BELLY!
  • Snowed in? God bless that snow storm – not only because DRINK! but because I was almost convinced "The Christmas Train" was going to turn into a horror movie. Stuck in the middle of nowhere with strangers with no cell phone signal? We were one extra day stuck in that train and one deranged script rewrite away from this turning into "The Revenant."

No Chabert or "Full House" alums means no bonus shot, and while there are cynics, they're not all that cynical toward Christmas. Honestly, this feels more like a regular edition Hallmark movie that happened to staple some Christmas into the script and onto the set's walls. Not that I'm complaining! Plus, it ends with snow on Christmas, so finish your drink – and finish what was easily the most compelling Hallmark movie I've seen this season.

And Hallmark Channel: Message me about my "Joan Cusack: Train Creep" TV show. I smell Emmys.

Verdict: Jingle Buzzed, Jingle Buzzed, Jingle All the Booze.


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