out of ****
Heston once said that the epic was the easiest type of film to
do badly. He would know. But after watching Unlikely Angel,
I might be willing to challenge his assertion and suggest that
it is instead the Christmas film that is the easiest to muck-up.
of all, you’re dealing with the type of film that you can
only watch once a year. Ben Hur, for all of its hamminess,
is at least an all-seasonal picture. Second of all, you’ve
got to make it the kind of film that people will want to see year
after year, meaning that there must be something appealing about
it beyond its sense of holiday cheer.
are conventions, of course, that are a given in the genre, and
have been ever since Gabriel and his choir first sang to the terrified
shepherds. Yes, we know that a Christmas film usually means that
everything’s going to turn out alright, and as the Christmas
bells ring, everyone is going to smile warmly, embrace, and shout
into the camera as the music swells, “God bless us, everyone!”
These days, these elements are as staple for a Christmas picture
as premarital sex is for a Friday the 13th sequel. But
a Christmas film must have more than these elements to keep it
afloat throughout the year—to make it a pleasant memory
in our minds January through November so that we wait in anticipation
to watch it again. These elements could be a number of things:
Maybe a clever storyline. Maybe likable, realistic characters.
Maybe a really good soundtrack. Maybe some funny, memorable lines.
Maybe a shocking twist in the plot.
Angel fails this test. Now, I’ve got to admit: As a
conventional Christmas film, it never, ever misses a note. It’s
sweet, overly sentimental, and teary-eyed. All the characters
start off as jerks and end up happier than they were, overcome
with Christmas spirit. The music swells when it is supposed to.
There are plenty of warm-fuzzies to go around. Snow falls at just
the right time. And, in the end, it is so fluffy that it is completely
forgettable. The whole exercise works so well and routinely, it
is almost offensive in its inoffensiveness.
film stars Dolly Parton as an egocentric country music star named
Ruby Diamond. With such a name, we understand that A) she is really
playing herself, and B) her character will eventually sing a song
called “Unlikely Angel.” To be fair, Dolly does a
good job with the material, but I’m not sure if that’s
because she’s a talented actress or if her own personality
simply exuberates with enough charm to carry an essentially weightless
digress. After living a raunchy, selfish life, Dolly is killed
in a car crash, swerving in the middle of the night to save a
doe. At the pearly gates, she is met by St. Peter (the late Robby
McDowell, trying to outdo fellow Brit David Warner in the race
for who can maintain their dignity regardless of their material)
who is prepared to sentence her to “Down There” for
her years of reckless living. But because she died selflessly,
he is willing to give her another chance to do a good deed and
thus earn her place in heaven.
Peter sends her on a Heaven Can Wait-like mission, in
which she must take the guise of a nanny for the two teenage kids
(Allison Mack and Eli Marienthal) of a widower (Brian Kerwin).
He’s a pretty bitter guy, consumed with work, and his children
are generally well behaved but understandably pretty unenthusiastic
about a big-haired nanny with a country accent and a liking for
sparkling, cleavage-bearing dresses. But never mind: Dolly arrives
the week before Christmas, and Dad, of course, doesn’t have
time for Christmas. Dolly quickly figures out that her mission
is to bring the family together again, not to mention hook Dad
up with his secretary (Maria del Mar), who is secretly in love
is there any doubt that Dolly will get her wings? Or that in the
end, she’ll be singing the Halleluiah Chorus in heaven as
the lead soloist to a group an angels? You’d think that
a third-rate country music star (her character, not Dolly herself)
would at best get the last chair in heaven’s official choir—where’s
Nat King Cole? Elvis? Ray Charles? Or, for that matter, Handel?
are some sweet moments in Unlikely Angel that were kind
of interesting. Roddy McDowell has fun as St. Peter, portraying
him as a sort of heavenly secret agent who likes to dress up as
humans of various accents and bring holiday cheer to people. I
liked how the two kids figure out pretty quickly that Dolly’s
character was evidently killed and conclude that she must be in
a government witness protection program (“Kids aren’t
as dumb as you think.”). Dolly and Kerwin have a couple
of cute scenes. But, hey—isn’t that Miracle on
34th Street playing a couple of stations over?
Dolly Parton: Ruby Diamond
Roddy McDowell: Saint Peter
Brian Kerwin: Ben
Allison Mack: Sarah
Eli Marienthal: Matthew
Maria del Mar: Allison
A film by the Hallmark Channel.
Directed by Michael Switzer. Written by Katherine Ann Jones. No
M.P.A.A. rating, but would probably squeak by with a PG for a
few minor curse words and Dolly’s ample cleavage. Running
time: 98 minutes. Original broadcast date: December 17, 1996.