It's a Sorrowful Life
A holiday gift wrapped in sadness but tied tenderly with hope, Noel follows a strange mix of characters who come in contact with each other on Christmas Eve. A lonely single woman trying to get through the night, an engaged couple facing a break up, an ex-priest afraid of dying alone, a young man determined to be admitted to the emergency room, and a stranger looking for forgiveness -- all these people need something like a miracle to mend their lives.
Although slow-moving and extremely gloomy at times, this unusual film features performances so touching they almost break your heart. Susan Sarandon (Shall We Dance?), as a woman who plans to spend Christmas Eve with a mother suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, gives her character a cheery façade -- but those expressive eyes reveal the depth of her despair. Naturally, I always expect the best from Sarandon, so the quality of her acting is never a surprise. However, Penelope Cruz (Gothika) and Paul Walker (Timeline) shocked me with their excellent work here as a couple about to break up because of the man’s pathological jealousy. Cruz must have gained some weight -- and it suits her. She looks absolutely gorgeous, especially in a brief scene showing her dancing for her boyfriend. Cruz and Walker project a sensitivity I never noticed before in any of their performances -- and that suits them both.
Robin Williams (One Hour Photo) may not be billed in the cast list, but he plays a very important role in Noel. His “Charly” helps Sarandon's "Rose" find her miracle, and their scenes together are the film’s most poignant. Alan Arkin portrays the hardest character to understand, a man who searches for his dead wife every Christmas Eve. Fortunately, a satisfactory explanation at the end of the movie helps to clear things up.
A colorful holiday setting in New York City contrasts with the bleak stories being told in Noel. Rockefeller Center never looked more Christmassy; streets and department stores sparkle with ornaments, wreaths and brightly decorated trees. All this reminds us of how happy everyone should be at “the merriest time of the year” and serves to evoke extra sympathy for the sad people depicted in this Christmas drama. I once spent December in New York City. It was my first time away from family and friends, so I understand how lonely a person can be amid the Big Apple’s lavish holiday atmosphere.
Helmed by first-time director Chazz Palminteri and written by David Hubbard (Delivering Milo), Noel celebrates small kindnesses and love rather than big miracles. Maybe I’m being sacrilegious, but I found this humanistic movie a more rewarding Christmas film than the perennially over-exposed It’s a Wonderful Life.
(Released by Screen Media Films and rated “PG” for sensuality, thematic material and some language. DVD special features include commentary by director Chazz Palmentari, behind-the-scenes information and cast filmographies.)