The closer we get to Christmas, the higher anxiety levels rise. Next week this time, it will be Christmas Eve. At that point, all gifts SHOULD be bought and wrapped, and all that’s left is to enjoy the big day. But there are still 7 days between now and then, and those days provide a multitude of opportunities for worrying and fretting, particularly for those who have yet to even think about getting into the Christmas spirit. And there will indeed be some of us up at midnight on the 24th wondering if it’s too late to get things delivered for the morning unwrapping.
The good people at Hallmark know this, and I’m convinced that they’re saving their most calming movies for this last Christmas rush, because CHRISTMAS NEXT DOOR is a mug of cocoa and a sugar cookie in film form. It’s almost completely stress-free, and even the obligatory misunderstanding that comes along right before the end is such a little piffle that we aren’t worried for even a second that the two leads won’t end up together.
Not that things aren’t a little stressful for THEM. Eric is the bestselling writer of books about the joys of bachelorhood. Only he’s having trouble with his latest, mostly because he’s starting to suspect that he’s grown out of the whole bachelor thing. Also, he hates Christmas due to what he refers to as his Christmas Jinx, which results in all kinds of bad luck for him at this time for year, most notably the time a girl he was planning on proposing to dumped him on Christmas Eve.
Meanwhile, his neighbor April is in full Christmas spirit. She’s decorated every last inch of her house and yard, and she’s crammed her schedule with caroling, cookie baking, present shopping, ice skating, and every other Christmassy thing she can think of. But she’s a little stressed too. See, she’s a violinist, and she would really love to play with the symphony. The only thing is, every time she tries to audition, she gets the hiccups and blows her chances. She spends her days teaching violin to kids and her nights playing for diners at her sister’s boyfriend’s swanky restaurant. Only now there’s an opening at the symphony and her sister has landed her an audition, so she has to face her fears once and for all.
Eric is all set to spend Christmas doing what he usually does for the holidays, which is nothing. Then his sister and brother-in-law, who are in Norway at a lutefisk symposium or something, get stuck there due to a blizzard. His niece and nephew, Chelsea and Liam, have been staying with Eric’s mother. But she decides Eric needs a lesson in how to be a better man, and so she feigns having the flu and insists that he take the kids for the week.
Chelsea and Liam are awesome, and they are totally on board with helping Uncle Eric become a better person. So when he brings them home to his sterile, ultra-modern, mostly gray bachelor pad, they take one look at the undecorated place and say, “Make Christmas for us.” I know this sounds bratty and annoying, but trust me, these two are geniuses. Also, they are practically Christmas elves. You have never seen two kids so excited about making handmade Christmas cards in your entire life. Liam in particular takes to the glitter like Bianca Jagger leaning over a table at Studio 54 on New Year’s Eve 1978.
Eric also has a horrible sort-of-girlfriend named Bridget, and she is a problem, but not much of one. She mostly shows up to roll her eyes and say things to Eric like, “You’re nothing like your books.” As someone who has been on the receiving end of this comment myself, I commend Eric for not replying, “Well, you look nothing like your Tinder profile picture, so I guess that makes us even.”
Speaking of books, a bigger problem for Eric is this book he’s supposed to be writing. He’s already been given two extensions on the deadline, and the publisher is not waiting any longer. Again, I have been in this situation myself, and might possibly even have a book due at this very moment that I am very much not writing, and so I am sympathetic to Eric’s plight. However, when a close-up on his laptop screen reveals that he is working on a chapter called “The Bachelor’s Dilemna,” I had to stop for a moment and say, “Eric. Dude. If you can’t even spell dilemma correctly, you have a bigger dilemma than being late on finishing this manuscript.” But being on deadline is a stressful thing, so I let it go.
Obviously, Eric and April need to fall in love. This kicks off when April is recruited to help Eric, Chelsea, and Liam decorate the tree the kids make him get for them. Once that happens, things roll along nicely. There’s shopping at the winter craft fair. There’s ice skating. There’s cookie decorating. There’s sharing, and longing looks, and some almost-kissing. And as I mentioned earlier, there’s a very minor misunderstanding that is a whole lot of nothing when Bridget comes to break up with Eric and he kisses her on the cheek and April sees it and is all, “I guess I need to be dramatic about this since there are 15 minutes left in the movie.” In the end, the right people fall in love, April joins the orchestra, Eric stops wearing all gray and puts on a red scarf, Chelsea and Liam’s parents make it home on Christmas Eve, and Eric’s publisher loves his new idea for a book about a bachelor who grows up by learning to be Uncle Christmas.
At this point, we are 28 movies deep into the Hallmark holiday movie season. We’ve had a lot of drama: lodges and Christmas shops almost forced to close, family secrets revealed, accusations of elder abuse, gingerbread and ice carving contests, PTSD, a near train derailing, and mishaps and misunderstandings galore. Really, it’s been a little stressful for everyone. So CHRISTMAS NEXT DOOR is exactly what we needed before the home stretch of Christmas week, a worry-free story about two likable people getting to know one another in a low-key way.
CHRISTMAS NEXT DOOR is the rare Hallmark movie that is cast around the male lead. Jesse Metcalfe stars in the Hallmark Channel series CHESAPEAKE SHORES (as does MAGICAL CHRISTMAS ORNAMENTS’ Brendan Penny and Andrew Francis from COMING HOME FOR CHRISTMAS and ENGAGING FATHER CHRISTMAS), and he’s great as Eric. But the real star is Fiona Gubelman as April. Gubelmann was fantastic in the offbeat series WILFRED and as the uptight ultraconservative Heather on DAYTIME DIVAS, and she’s fantastic here, even if part of my brain kept trying to convince me that she was Kristin Chenoweth’s baby sister. Hopefully, we’ll see more of her next year.