Just a couple of months ago, my friend Ron Oliver mentioned that he was finishing up his latest script for a Hallmark holiday movie. I was already furious with him for not giving me a role as an ambulatory pile of bladderwrack in his recent remake of the Sid and Marty Krofft classic SIGMUND AND THE SEA MONSTERS (which you can, and should, catch on Amazon), so I pretended not to be impressed. But secretly I was seething with jealousy and hoping it would turn out to be horrible, so that I could gloat.
Well, I am still seething. Because ROMANCE AT REINDEER LODGE is one of my favorites of this year’s offerings. While the last few movies have been totally pleasant and thoroughly enjoyable, REINDEER LODGE is a return to the bordering-on-ridiculous-in-a-good-way Hallmark holiday movies that I love the most. It should not work. Seriously, if I was a studio head and someone handed me a synopsis of this one and said, “We’re making this into a movie,” I would need to take an entire bottle of whatever it is anxious studio heads take to calm down. And yet, the finished product is glorious in its weirdness.
Molly is a workaholic who is married to her job at a company that develops apps. She dresses in somber outfits that look like the ensemble Maria wore when the nuns sent her away from the abbey. Also, she has really short hair, which in the normal world is no big deal but in a Hallmark movie is very unusual and is the first sign that Things Are Going To Be Different This Time. She is played by Nicky Whelan, who I only know from the Australian soap opera NEIGHBOURS WITH A U even though she has apparently been in a billion things.
As I said, Molly loves her work. She loves it so much that when her boss announces that the office is shutting down for two weeks of paid vacation as a Christmas bonus, she is not at all happy about it, as it means she will be stuck sitting in her boring apartment not celebrating with her nonexistent boyfriend. Things look up a little while later, though, when she is the 15th caller to a radio station and wins a trip to Jamaica, where she envisions herself lounging on the beach drinking rum punches and so feels much better about her life.
While Molly is packing for Jamaica, Jared is also packing for a trip, but his is all business. Just as Molly’s short hair is unusual in a female Hallmark lead, Jared daringly sport this season’s first actual beard on a male lead. Granted, it’s not a lumberjack beard or anything, but it is unmistakably a beard, and this was very exciting for some of us. Usually only the villains or unsuitable boyfriends in Hallmark holiday movies have beards, which frankly is totally unfair, as not all of us with facial hair are trying to shut down the toy factory, thank you very much.
Jared is played by Josh Kelly, and between the beard and his slightly off-kilter smile, he immediately jumped to the top of my favorite Hallmark leading men list, and this was before he’d even bumped into Molly at the airport, where they are both checking in for the flight to Jamaica. Molly is totally rude to him, by the way, and so it is enormously entertaining when they find themselves seated next to each other on the very tiny plane and Jared informs her that it is taking them to Jamaica . . . Vermont. Molly probably should have read the fine print on her tickets, because she is shocked to find out that there is a Jamaica, VT, and that she is going there. There really is a Jamaica, VT, by the way, although I am sorry to tell you that there is not a Reindeer Lodge there, and RARL was filmed in Connecticut.
The pilot of the plane unreasonably refuses Molly’s request to turn the plane around and take her back to Chicago, and so she and her beach hat land in Vermont, where she is met by a man named Chris who is holding up a sign with her name on it. Chris is one of the proprietors of the Reindeer Lodge, and he is there to pick Molly up. He is also there to pick up Jared, which is an unbelievable coincidence. Now, I get that Molly is upset about landing in the snow while wearing completely inappropriate footwear, and maybe is a little bit more upset because the cute-but-sarcastic guy who teased her on the plane is staying at the same place she is, but she really should get over it and give in to the adventure.
Molly is not a getting-over-it type though, not even when they arrive at Reindeer Lodge and it is the picture of New England Christmastime. Not even when she meets Chris’s wife, who happens to be Sabrina the Teenage Witch’s fabulous Aunt Zelda, although she is going by the name Penny here. Penny is fan-tas-tic. She seems to be high all of the time, like Martha Stewart when she hangs out at Snoop’s house for the holidays and they make their special fudge, and she is all about decorating and making cookies and telling everyone to embrace the Christmas magic.
Molly is still steadfastly not embracing the Christmas spirit, not even when Penny takes her upstairs to show her to her room, which turns out to be a poinsettia greenhouse. Seriously, they are everywhere. Molly doesn’t care, though, because she is too stunned by the news that the Reindeer Lodge has no wi-fi. Also, she is horrified by the flannel nightgown that Penny gives her to wear. I might have to agree with her on this, as it is totally a granny nightgown. Still, she didn’t have to roll her eyes quite so hard when it’s obvious that Penny is doing the best she can to make her feel at home.
That first night, Molly and Jared assemble in the living room for happy hour, and discover that there is another couple (not that Molly and Jared are a couple yet, but come on, we all know where this is going) staying at Reindeer Lodge, and they are very important to the story. Their names are Kayla and Greg, and you will not even believe this but they are black. That’s right. In addition to short hair and a beard, we have actual black co-leads! At this point I did not even know what was happening, as this movie was throwing surprise after surprise at me, and it was so thrilling I could hardly breathe.
Happy hour turns out to be milk and cookies, which is always a good thing to have, and we learn that Kayla and Greg are photographers who are there celebrating their first anniversary and also taking photos for a book they’re putting together of Christmas-themed images. They chose the Reindeer Lodge because there are reindeer there. Now, I was under the impression that Reindeer Lodge was just a cute name, like Mistletoe Orphanage or Gingerbread House Sanitarium. I had no idea there were actual live reindeer there, and I’m telling you that this was nearly too much joy to take at one time. Short hair? A beard? Black co-leads? And now real live reindeer? How much happiness can one person’s heart take?
Only it turns out that the reindeer might be a bit of a problem. See, Reindeer Lodge sits on a 1,000-acre wildlife preserve, and the reindeer wander all over the place. Now they seem to have wandered off, or are shy, or something, because Chris tells everyone that they haven’t shown up lately. But not to worry, he says, they will, and this a huge relief to everyone.
The Reindeer Lodge has a lot of traditions, one of which is the daily drawing of the Christmas Question. Greg gets to pick the first question, which is, “How many pipers are piping in ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’?” As any child knows, the answer to this is of course 11, which Molly blurts out. Only she isn’t responding to the question, she is repeating the number of days the airline representative she’s talking to on the reindeer phone (did I mention that it has antlers?) is telling her she’ll be stuck at Reindeer Lodge for before they can get her back to Chicago. Still, she is correct, and so she gets to open the door on the day’s advent calendar, which is the second part of the tradition. The door reveals a piece of chocolate and an inspirational saying, which that day is, “Every Christmas is a journey.” Molly does not find this at all inspiring, though, because she is envisioning 11 nights sleeping in a flannel nightgown while surrounded by poinsettias, and so she acts all put out.
Because Molly has not packed any snow-appropriate clothing, the next day she goes shopping with Kayla to find some. She stumbles upon a shop owned by the love child of AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN’s Myrtle Snow and THE INCREDIBLES’ Edna Mode, who shows her all kinds of ridiculous Christmas-themed sportswear, including a sweater with a scarf-wearing llama on it that—I hope you are sitting down, because this might be too much to handle—I JUST BOUGHT LAST WEEK. It is the greatest Christmas sweater ever created, and I would wear it every day of my life except that I don’t want to get horse spit all over it. Molly though is still resisting the charm of Jamaica, and turns her nose up at it, which actually is fine because I don’t want to show up at the Christmas party and see her in the same thing.
She eventually settles on a boring sweater with no Christmas cheer to it, then Kayla asks her why she hates Christmas and Molly says it’s a long story, so Kayla responds by telling HER a long story about Greg’s grandmother being all into reindeer and believing that seeing reindeer in the wild means your love will last forever, or something like that. That part was all a little weird, and I was too busy wondering where Greg’s grandmother lived that she was always running into reindeer to really pay attention to the specifics. Anyway, Molly gets a little confused by this story too, and runs off to look for a power cord for her phone. Only Jared has already bought one for her because not only is he adorable he is thoughtful, so to celebrate they go for a hot toddy and Molly tells Jared a terrible story about how her father froze to death in a snowstorm when she was 8. If you think that’s awful, which it is, it gets even worse, because he froze to death on Christmas Eve, and the next morning Molly opened his present to her, which was a hand-carved reindeer ornament.
Now we know why the holidays are a tough time for Molly. Jared, not quite knowing how to cope with this information in an effectively soothing way, settles for taking Molly on a carriage ride, and when they get back to Reindeer Lodge Molly is wearing a different coat than the one she left in, so I guess they stopped along the way to shop too. Then Jared makes a phone call to his boss, and we discover that he is not at Reindeer Lodge purely for pleasure, and that something bad might be happening, and that it might or might not have to do with the lodge closing.
The next day, Jared finds Chris carving a wooden something-or-other and asks if he’ll show him how to carve too. Then Molly helps Penny decorate cookies, and while this is happening Jared decides to be helpful and chop up a tree for firewood. This is a great idea except that the tree he chops up is the Christmas tree that they’re supposed to be decorating later. And then there is more bad news when Chris announces that they might not see any reindeer because the reindeer all have reindeer flu and are confined to bed rest.
This story sounds a little suspicious, and it is, because when Jared and Molly and Greg and Kayla tromp off into the woods to find a new Christmas tree, what they also find is a barn that is supposed to be filled with flu-ridden reindeer but instead is filled with nothing. Chris admits that this is because there really are no reindeer. Or, there are, but they’ve all wandered off somewhere and nobody has seen them in a very long time. And then there is more bad news because Penny gets a letter telling them that the lodge is being foreclosed on, so now everything sucks for everyone. And I didn’t even tell you the part where Jared tells Molly a sad story about how he basically grew up in boarding schools and had to buy himself Christmas presents because his father was too busy to spend time with him.
Now everyone is good and miserable, especially Kayla, who runs through Reindeer Lodge crying and tells Molly that everything is ruined because now she and Greg will never get photographs of reindeer. So Molly goes to Jared and says, “There must be something we can do,” and Jared says, “I like looking at you,” and then they go grocery shopping and Molly searches the internet to see if they can find someone who has excess reindeer they want to unload. Reindeer are a surprisingly scarce commodity, though, and everybody on Craigslist is trying to get rid of things like Hummels and kittens, and so this is a dead end.
All of this culminates in an auction of Greg and Kayla’s photographs to raise money to save Reindeer Lodge. At first it seems like nobody is going to come, but suddenly the place is swarming with townspeople and it is explained that they’re late due to Mrs. Elliott’s cows getting out and blocking the road, and as someone who lives in the country I can tell you that this is indeed a thing that sometimes happens, as I once had to sit for almost an hour while some wandering sheep were cleared out and I could get to the Acme. Unfortunately, along with the cheerful townspeople, someone else shows up, and that is Jared’s dad, who holds the deed on Reindeer Lodge and has come to throw everyone out into the cold.
When Molly finds this out, she cannot believe that Jared has lied to her. As Jared points out, he hasn’t actually lied, he has just failed to tell her some things. Molly is not about to spend time arguing semantics, though, and she announces that she is getting on a plane and going back to Chicago to spend Christmas alone. She also slicks her hair back into the severe style she was wearing at the start of the movie, and so we know she is dead serious about being unhappy. She doesn’t even listen when Kayla says, “Girl, you are making a mistake.”
While Molly is being mad at Jared, Jared is being mad at his father, which we know because instead of calling him dad he calls him William. When William finally gets a word in, he explains that he is not there to close down Reindeer Lodge after all, he is there to make up with Jared and to give him a present, which is the deed to Reindeer Lodge to do with as he sees fit. Jared would love to share this news with Molly, but unfortunately, she and her severe hair are in a cab on the way to the airport. On the way, she opens the advent calendar paper of the day that Penny slipped into her pocket on the way out the door, and it says, “The best Christmas gift is love.” Molly is not about to listen to a slip of paper that has sentimental leanings, and so she shoves this message into her pocket and storms up to the check-in desk. There, she finds something in her purse, and that turns out to be a hand-carved wooded reindeer that Jared has made for her.
If you are not dying right now, you need to go to the emergency room and have your heart checked to make sure that you have one. Molly discovers that hers is working, and she gets herself back to Reindeer Lodge in time to stand in the Christmas Eve moonlight with Jared. This is when the two leads would normally finally kiss, but Reindeer Lodge has one more surprise for us, and that is those missing REINDEER. And I don’t mean Harry Potter Patronus reindeer, although they do have a bit of a magical glow around them. I mean honest-to-goodness reindeer. A sleigh-pulling team of eight, to be exact. Because the Christmas magic has brought them back to Reindeer Lodge.
As a director, Mr. Oliver had the year’s most-watched Hallmark holiday movie with THE CHRISTMAS TRAIN a few weeks ago. As a writer, he has one of the most entertaining with ROMANCE AT REINDEER LODGE. True, a lot of the credit must go to Josh Kelly’s beard, but a beard without plot and dialogue is just another handsome face. It is a really handsome face, though. Maybe next year Mr. Oliver will up the ante and write us BROMANCE AT REINDEER LODGE, which introduces us to Jared’s hitherto unknown twin brother, Max, who falls in love with the curmudgeonly author who comes to Reindeer Lodge to escape his memories of the terrible garland-stringing tragedy that wiped out his whole family.