Yes, I know this one aired before several of the others I’ve already recapped. But I failed to record it. Twice. But better late than never, right?
Like many a Hallmark movie, CHRISTMAS JOY is based on a book, in this case the novel of the same name by Nancy Naigle. One of the reader reviews of the book says that it’s “a Hallmark Christmas movie on the page,” and now I’m curious to read the book to see how the story is stretched to an astonishing 352 pages. Not that the story is any more lightweight than that of any other holiday movie. It’s exactly what it needs to be. But 352 pages is a LOT of pages of cookie baking and misunderstandings, and I am in awe of Naigle for wringing that much holiday cheer out of the story.
I was particularly looking forward to this one because the script is by Tracy Andreen, who penned last year’s enormously entertaining Candace Cameron Bure vehicle SWITCHED FOR CHRISTMAS, and directed by Monika Mitchell, who helmed ROYAL NEW YEAR’S EVE. I’m not familiar with either of the leads, both of whom have a ton of television credits but no (as far as I can tell) prior Hallmark Christmas movies on their resumes, but it’s always fun to see new faces.
Danielle Panabaker’s Joy is what Hallmark describes on their website as “an intuitive market researcher.” This sounds like a very exciting thing to be, and Joy seems very excited to be one, as she opens the movie striding the sidewalks of Washington, DC, in a bright red coat that screams “I am a strong, confident career girl,” which is always a winning attitude. She pauses while striding to check out the window displays of a department store, where she has a staring contest with a Virgin Mary and wins, and so we know that she has fortitude, because besting the Mother of the Christ Child is no small thing.
The department store is called Weatheron’s, and it is basically Macy’s when Macy’s was actually a lovely, dignified place to shop and not a depressing shadow of its former self with half-price sweaters littering the floor and sullen cashiers wishing that death would take them away from their misery. I remember vividly entering the Macy’s in New York years ago at Christmastime and being overwhelmed by the grandeur of it all. But the last time I went into one it was all about finding underpants on sale, and the whole thing made me a little sad. Fortunately, Weatherton’s is still top-notch.
Joy is there to oversee a focus group. Watching her through a one-way window is Poppy Weatherton, who as you might guess is the owner of Weatherton’s and a formidable presence what with her tweedy suit and her glowering assistant who is never given a name and with his dark beard and dark suit looks like a spy from some made-up country like Skolandia or Margrusk. Poppy is played by Gabrielle Rose, and I will pause here for a moment to tell you that if you have not seen it, you must immediately stop what you are doing and watch the 1997 film THE SWEET HEREAFTER, directed by Atom Egoyan. It’s the story of a bus accident in which 14 children are killed and the effect this has on the small town the kids all come from. Gabrielle Rose plays the driver of that bus, and she is astonishing and the whole movie is astonishing and I know that a bunch of kids dying around the holidays isn’t really, you know, CHEERY, but it is such a wonderful film and I know you will want to see it, and so I’m mentioning it.
The focus group goes really well, and afterwards Joy’s friend Rene tells her that Poppy was there and then says something about Joy maybe getting a promotion at the upcoming company holiday party. Joy is obviously thinking about the promotion too, and she and Rene go shopping at Weatherton’s for a dress for her to wear to the party, which they keep calling a gala because they are fancy. They find the perfect dress on a manikin wearing a Sia wig, and the dress is really stunning. It’s emerald green, which was slightly surprising because we have now determined that this year’s Unifying Color is dubonnet, and I thought they would go with that.
Oh, I must pause again, this time to explain about dubonnet. In previous recaps I identified this year’s costuming Unifying Color as ruby, although I thought it could also be called garnet or pomegranate or wine or any number of other things. Then my literary agent (I have a bunch of books. Buy them. Thanks.), who also loves Hallmark Christmas movies, told me that she once wore a blouse of this very color to school and one of her teachers informed her that in HIS day the color was called dubonnet, and we agree that this sounds very elegant and delightful and so we are going with it for the remainder of the season.
As I said, the dress Joy picks out is not dubonnet, it is emerald, and although this was a disappointment, it becomes important later on and you will have to wait to find out why. Of more immediate interest is that as Joy and Rene are looking at the dress, Poppy Weatherton and her European spy happen by and Poppy says “That will look wonderful on you” but does not offer to give Joy the dress for free, which I thought would have been a nice touch because they are obviously going to be friends.
Back at Joy’s office, we are introduced to Joy’s boss. Her name is Margie, and she is clearly an overachiever who makes others tense with her overachieving. She is wearing a dubonnet blouse, and she is critical of Joy for telling Poppy Weatherton that she should focus on the experience of shopping in the Weatherton’s store, because as Margie says, everyone who is anyone in intuitive market research knows that the future is in cybershopping and now Joy has made the firm seem like they are out of touch. And, I mean, Margie is not wrong about the cybershopping thing, but she also probably doesn’t remember what it was like to shop at places like Macy’s when they were nice, because she wasn’t even born then, and so she just doesn’t get it.
It is now time to be introduced to our male lead, whose name is Ben. Ben lives in a tiny town in North Carolina called Crystal Falls. As we meet him, he is driving through town waving to everyone he sees, because that’s what life is like in Crystal Falls. Then we learn that he is an administrator at the town hospital, which is kind of exactly what he looks like he would be and so this is very good casting.
When we next see Joy, she is staring at a Hallmark Wonderfolds Christmas card featuring a picture of a sleigh and this is excellent product placement and not at all awkward or forced. She seems a little nostalgic about the card, but nothing is said about it before we are whisked back to Crystal Falls to meet Joy’s Aunt Ruby. Aunt Ruby is looking at old photos in the same nostalgic way that Joy was looking at the Wonderfolds card. Then she decides to climb a stepladder in order to get to a box at the very top of a stack of other boxes. She is wearing fuzzy slipper/house sock things when she does that, which we all know is a recipe for disaster, especially as there are several close-ups of them. Then she really tempts fate by standing on the top rung of the ladder despite the very clear warning sticker posted there saying DO NOT STEP ON TOP STEP, ESPECIALLY IF YOU ARW WEARING FUZZY SLIPPER SOCK THINGS, THIS MEANS YOU, RUBY.
We all know what is about to happen, but we do not get to see it happen because we are magically transported to Ben’s office, where he is looking overwhelmed. He is overwhelmed because he is supposed to be looking over some important paperwork, but instead he is fretting about the Cookie Crawl. This, as we will learn, is an annual event in Crystal Falls where people bake millions of cookies and everyone goes from house to house, sampling them and working themselves into a sugar frenzy before voting on who had the best cookies and sacrificing the loser to a giant bonfire to ensure that the town survives the coming winter.
Back in DC, Joy gets a call from Aunt Ruby’s best friend, Shirley Andrews, informing her that Aunt Ruby has had an accident. We have been expecting this, and so to us it is not much of a shock, but it is fresh news to Joy and so she is very upset. And so off she goes to Crystal Falls, where she rushes to the hospital. You might recall that Ben works at the hospital. Well, he is still there, decorating the lobby Christmas tree, and Joy manages to become entangled in the lights he is putting on the tree and Ben says “Whoa there, city girl. This is North Carolina, not DC.” with a lot of disdain, and this will shortly become a theme of which we grow very weary.
In Aunt Ruby’s room, Joy expresses her angst and Ben comes in with a dish of ice cream. We learn more about the Cookie Crawl, and also learn that Ben has been Aunt Ruby’s co-captain (no, I don’t know why they call them captains) in organizing it for the past four years and now Joy is put out that nobody thought to ask her to help even though she hasn’t bothered to come back to Crystal Falls once in all that time and so this is her own fault. She is so upset that when she leaves the hospital she manages to back her Mini Cooper into Ben’s truck, but this is okay because Ben’s cousin Zeke will be able to fix it, as long as she doesn’t take it to him on Saturday as this is a small town and that is the day Zeke helps his parents out at the diner.
Joy manages to drive her car to Aunt Ruby’s house without further incident, where she retrieves the front door key from underneath a flowerpot because this is a small town and not DC. The house is very cute, and it is crammed with Christmas and I would kill to live in it. Joy goes up into what is obviously her old room, and even though we still don’t know why she has an old room there to go into and this must remain a mystery for the present, this is a Hallmark Christmas movie and therefore we can pretty safely assume that her parents are dead.
Speaking of parents, Ben is spending some time with his. Both of them are alive, which means things aren’t looking good for Joy’s. Ben enters their house carrying a stack of cardboard boxes labelled things like GINGERBREAD and making a big deal about how Joy is a big city girl and his mother says “Not all city women are You Know Who” as if they are Hermione and Harry and Ron talking about Voldemort.
I forgot to mention that Ben’s mother is Shirley, Aunt Ruby’s best friend and the woman who called Joy to get her to come back to Crystal Falls in the first place. We now learn that Shirley is upset about Ruby’s injury for reasons other than general concern for her friend. See in addition to the Cookie Crawl there is a gingerbread bake-off happening, because with nothing else to do in Crystal Falls everyone has a lot of time for rolling out dough. And for the past four years, Ben has been the judge of the bake-off, presumably because every single other person in town is a contestant. And since he cannot be both a judge and a contestant because this is not Communist Russia and there are rules of fairness, he has been unable to team up with his mother. This has apparently been a source of some strain between them, and Shirley was looking forward to Ben taking this year off from judging the gingerbread competition so that they could enter the bake-off together. But now with Ruby unable to manage the Cookie Crawl, well, their partnership might once again be in jeopardy because as the former co-captain, Ben is Ruby’s most obvious replacement.
The next morning, Joy feeds some goats. Then she runs around town in a Crystal Falls High School sweatshirt because for some reason she didn’t pack a suitcase before leaving DC. She runs into Ben at a coffee shop, where there’s a little bit of flirting. She then learns in a phone call that Aunt Ruby has to go to a rehabilitation center and will be unable to organize the Cookie Crawl. Joy offers to help, saying to her “You took me in at the worst time in my life and this is the least I can do” and so now it’s pretty clear that her parents are dead. Ben then informs her that her first task as Cookie Crawl captain is to come up with a theme, and why they are only thinking about this now when the Crawl is a few days away, I don’t know. He also offers to be Joy’s co-captain, but she says “It’s Christmas trees and cookies, not advanced calculus” and informs him that she does not need any help. Then Ben hits her with the number of cookies and brownies she will need to make, which is about sixty million, and tells her about the Golden Wreath. That’s the prize the winner of the Cookie Crawl wins, and it’s a big deal.
While Joy is sitting at Aunt Ruby’s house surrounded by binders containing the plans from past years’ Cookie Crawls and realizing that this is going to be more work than she thought, Margie calls from back in DC and says “You’ll be back for the big gala on the 22, right?” to remind us about that and Joy says of course she will but we know she totally won’t because how could she when she has to come up with a theme, decorate, make sixty million cookies, and fall in love with Ben, all in the next couple of days? To underscore this, Ben arrives with a truckload of decorations and gets snarky again about how this is a small town and not a big city and WE GET IT, BEN, OMG WHO ARE YOU, JOHN MELLENCAMP?
Because Joy is super organized, she sets up a chalkboard with a list of everything she needs to do. And she’s actually making pretty good headway, at least until Margie calls again and says “I need you to write this report by tomorrow morning” and Joy has to stop thinking about cookies and start thinking about intuitive market research. This makes her fall asleep at the table, so in the morning she needs to go get coffee, where she runs into Ben again and Ben says “I have an ex-wife and she has made me mistrustful of everyone and that is why I hate city women.” Then he gets a call and his assistant at the hospital has had her baby a week early and this is a problem because she was supposed to judge the gingerbread contest so that Ben could partner with his mother and now Ben will have to judge the gingerbread contest and his mother will perish of grief. Joy reacts to his predicament by giving him a nickname — Captain Christmas — and Ben replies with “You look tired — I mean PRETTY tired” which you could take two ways, one of which is negative, but Joy takes it positively and agrees to judge the gingerbread thing if he will help her with the Cookie Crawl and now they are a team.
Back at home, Joy opens boxes and finds one with an ornament in it that is the same color as her party dress. Remember how I said that color would be important? Well, this is where that happens, because the ornament was given to Joy by her mother, who as we have suspected is in fact dead, and so it has great significance to her. I have to say the ornament is actually not very interesting. It’s just this green . . . thing. Personally, I would have liked to see something a little more interesting. You know, since Hallmark makes keepsake ornaments and all and probably has three or four boxes of them lying around. But maybe they though that after doing product placement for the Wonderfold line of cards, pushing their ornaments would seem crass. Anyway, it’s an ornament. And it’s green. And Joy has feelings about it.
As Ben has informed her, Joy needs to make those sixty million cookies. Actually, she just has to make the dough for them, as they’ll be baked later. I don’t really understand this part, as the Cookie Crawl is only a few days away and cookies keep perfectly well, but this thing with the dough is what’s happening and so we just have to go with it. While Joy is making dough, her office friend Rene Skypes her and says “Something is happening with the Weatherton’s account, but I don’t know what” and before this can be discussed in more detail Ben walks in and Rene sees him and goes “Ooooohhhhhh” because he really is cute (in a small town non-city way, of course) and Joy hangs up because this is obviously embarrassing. Then Ben is critical of her for making the oatmeal raisin dough before the chocolate chip dough because she is a city girl and stupid about cookie making.
After they’ve made three tons of dough, Ben expresses enthusiasm for Joy’s blackboard, which is a positive step in their relationship. Joy then sets them back two steps by suggesting that the theme of the Cookie Crawl be “Frosty Goes Tropical.” Ben counters with “Dickens,” to reinforce again that he is all about tradition while Joy is about modern ways of thinking. While they pause to consider that maybe they are far too different to ever work as a couple, he picks up the ornament Joy was being nostalgic about earlier and promptly drops it, shattering it. Joy says it’s okay, but it is totally not okay.
While Ben is sweeping up the pieces of the ornament that represent Joy’s broken heart, Joy gets a text from someone named Phil Finnegan, who is the rep for Carolina’s Best Flour, the sponsors of the upcoming gingerbread bake-off. He wants to meet with her to go over the rules of the competition. I thought this would be an excellent way in which to introduce some competition for Joy’s affections, but this is not the case. When Ben and Joy meet Phil the next day, he is clearly not someone in whom she might be romantically interested, not least because he promptly presents her with another binder, this one containing the numerous rules for the contest, which she must memorize.
Joy informs Ben that because she has agreed to take over his duties as the gingerbread judge and now has to cram for it as if it’s the night before the SATs and she has not cracked a book all semester, he must buy her dinner. He does, and while they are eating that dinner we learn that Joy moved to Crystal Falls when she was 15, following the death of her mother, so now that’s settled. What happened to her father is never explained, but before we can get upset about this we learn that she and Ben once went on a sort-of date when he was home from college and his mother asked him to take Joy to the movies to cheer her up. The movie they saw was LOVE ACTUALLY, and Joy enjoyed it very much. This whole thing was CONFUSING ACTUALLY because it seems this would have come up earlier in the movie and I had all kinds of questions about how old Joy was when college-aged Ben took her out.
This is all conveniently brushed aside, and Ben and Joy leave the restaurant. As they exit, they run into Ben’s parents, who are on their way in. Ben’s mother is wearing a dubonnet coat and wants to know What’s Going On Here and Ben says “You know I don’t date people who live in the city.” Then his mother uses a metaphor about driving to tell him he needs to stop being a jerk.
Back at home, Margie calls Joy. Again. She has even more work that needs to be done right away, and when Joy protests that she has thirty million cookies still left to make, Margie suggests that cookie baking is not work and she is SO wrong about this. Cookie making is hard. I know because I once made twenty dozen cookies for a Christmas party and it took me FOREVER. True, this is mostly because I ate half of them before the party and had to make them again, but still. So I think Margie needs to back off.
While Joy is wallowing in more dough and more intuitive market research, Ben is in his workshop at home. It is revealed that he has smuggled out the broken pieces of the ornament he dropped and is going to do something with them. What that is, we don’t know. Unless he is a glassblower, which likely would have been mentioned earlier, there’s no way he could put them back together. I briefly worried that he was going to use them against her in some kind of black magic, but then I remembered that this movie was not called MAKE THE YULETIDE SLAY and I calmed down.
The next day, Joy visits Aunt Ruby in rehab, where Ruby is distressed to learn that Joy has still not chosen a theme and has made only SOME of the brownies and cookies. Ben’s mother is there too, and she and Joy carry around obviously-empty coffee cups, which is a huge pet peeve of mine when it comes to these movies, even if walking and saying your lines is difficult enough without having to take the potential for first-degree burns into consideration. When Joy admits that the pressures of work and being the captain of the Cookie Crawl are getting to her, Shirley shares a story about how she herself walked away from a high-pressure job to take a more laid-back one and maybe Joy should think about doing that too, as women are almost always happy with less. This is all well and good but as being the Cookie Crawl captain is, as far as I can tell, an unpaid position, not a terribly practical one. However, if it turns out that being a Cookie Crawl captain does pay a living wage, I will be the first to submit my application, because living in a small town and baking cookies all day is something I would be totally great at.
Later on, Ben and Joy get together and drink the world’s biggest cups (probably empty) of hot chocolate. Unbeknownst to Ben, Joy has sprinkled cayenne pepper into the hot chocolate, and when he says it tastes fantastic, Joy starts to believe that maybe he CAN enjoy new things. She tests this theory by making him go ice skating, ostensibly because not thinking about the Cookie Crawl theme will help them actually think of a Cookie Crawl theme. While they are skating Joy thanks him for taking her to the movies all those years ago and Ben asks her if she’s single and she says “Well, there was Todd but that fizzled” and Ben says “hmm.” By the time they’re done skating they still don’t have a theme and so they go into the woods and listen to the trees, because apparently they are Loraxes. Ben explains that whenever he is upset he goes into the forest and listens to trees. Then he and Joy quote John Muir to one another and find a bird’s nest on the ground and Joy decides that the Cookie Crawl theme should be Mother Nature and how everyone is connected and this makes no sense whatsoever.
Their enthusiasm for the Cookie Crawl renewed by having come up with a theme, Ben and Joy return to Aunt Ruby’s house and decorate a tree. Joy then pushes Ben further out of his comfort zone by suggesting that they arrange the cookie tables in a pattern that differs from previous years and Ben says “I used to live in New York.” This causes them to almost kiss, but at the last minute Ben remembers that she is a city girl and pulls away. Joy is understandably confused and decides to eat her feelings, which proves to be a disaster when she raids the freezer for some brownies and the freezer’s lid doesn’t close afterward and all the dough she made spoils.
Distraught upon discovering the spoiled dough, Joy calls her friend Rene and says “However will I remake all that dough, judge the gingerbread contest, AND get back to DC for the party?” Rene then makes things worse by telling her that Margie is pretty unhappy about her being gone so long, which understandably makes Joy even more tense and wish she had some of those brownies back. Then she tells Rene about the almost kiss while, across town, Ben is telling his mother the same story and when his mother suggests that she’s getting really tired of this whole city mouse/country mouse thing Ben says “Everything is fine and you’re not my real mom and city women are devils!”
Joy admits to Aunt Ruby that she’s in the weeds with the whole cookie dough thing, and Ben tells his mother as well because he apparently tells her everything. The next thing you know, Ben is at Ruby’s offering to help, and then every single person in Crystal Falls shows up to help too and there is a montage of people laughing and making cookies and by the time it’s over there are mountains of cookies and everyone is leaving and Joy and Ben admit that things are awkward between them but make no attempt to rectify that.
Now it is the gingerbread bake-off. This whole thing is actually pretty anticlimactic, and all you need to know is that Ben and his mother win. But with it out of the way, Joy is off to DC for her big party. Sorry, the GALA. Before she goes, Ben gives her a wrapped gift and tells her to open it later. Joy says “You could have given it to me tomorrow, as I’m coming back for the Cookie Crawl” but Ben is pretty convinced that once she gets back to the city the lure of her fast-paced life will keep her from returning because city girls are all the same and probably by this time next week Joy will be having brunch with his ex-wife and laughing about what a bumpkin he is.
Actually, Ben is pretty upset about Joy leaving, which we know because he Loraxes off to the woods to speak to the trees. Miraculously, they speak back, calling his name. Only it’s not the trees, it’s his father, who is wandering around the forest too. He gives Ben a little lecture about Joy (the young lady AND the emotion). Then they talk about big city girls and Ben’s father says “For the love of Christmas, Ben, get over it.” Then he says that there are no shortcuts and I don’t even know what this means.
Back home in DC, Joy gets ready for what she hopes will be her big night. She opens Ben’s gift and it’s a wooden heart with the pieces of the ornament forming a mosaic on the top and she says “Oh, Ben” in a sad way. Then she has to leave, but she comes back for the heart and stuffs it into her clutch because it’s pretty substantial and will make a good weapon if she finds herself needing to clock someone. At the gala, almost everyone is wearing black but Rene is wearing dubonnet and of course Joy is in her emerald dress and looks stunning. Also, Poppy Weatherton is there with the European spy and everyone is atwitter about what this means.
Now we cut back to Ben, and he is wearing a tux! Also, he is driving with a look of determination on his face because he is worried that he will not get to the big city (where he is obviously going) in time before the movie ends.
At the gala, Poppy approaches Joy and says “There are going to be some changes at Weatherton’s and I value your input and know your boss doesn’t value you and I think a Cookie Crawl sounds fabulous.” Margie, who sees this happen, storms over and wants to know what Poppy said to Joy, then informs Joy that they have lost the Weatherton’s account and so Margie will need Joy to work double time starting tomorrow and so she cannot possibly go back to Crystal Falls for the Cookie Crawl. When Joy balks at this, Margie reminds her that they have not announced the promotions yet and maybe she needs to reorder her priorities. Joy can sense a veiled threat when she hears one, and she has had enough of this and so she quits on the spot and Margie’s eye twitches.
Ben has made it to DC with time to spare, and he arrives at the party just in time to see Joy and Rene talking and to mistakenly believe that Joy is excited about having received a promotion and not because she just quit a really stressful job and now is free to bake cookies all day. Then someone mistakes him for one of the waiters and this big city attitude is more than he can bear and he leaves. Joy seems him and follows him, but he refuses to pick up when she calls because he is totally unreasonable and a giant manbaby.
Finally, the day of the Cookie Crawl arrives. Aunt Ruby comes home from the hospital and she and Joy talk about Ben and Aunt Ruby is pleased as punch that Joy has found her vulnerable side and Joy informs her that she will be moving in with her, at least for a while. Aunt Ruby then apparently tells her best friend Shirley this news, because Shirley then informs Ben that Joy is coming back to Crystal Falls for good and that he’s being a jackass. Of course, she has said this several times before, but now there are only a few minutes left in the film and so this time he listens to her.
The Crawl commences, and Ruby’s house looks fantastic thanks to Joy. The whole town comes through, many of them in dubonnet sweaters and scarfs. Even Rene comes from DC, which is nice of her because that’s a long drive just to get some cookies. Even more exciting, Mrs. Weatherton shows up, and she offers Joy a job at the new store she’s opening in nearby Charlotte.
Now all that’s left is for Ben to arrive. He does, and he tells Joy that she looked great in her green dress, which she is now not wearing, and she tells him that he looked great in his tux, which he is also now not wearing. Then Joy tells him about her new job in Charlotte, and after doing the math in his head and realizing that commuting to Charlotte from Crystal Falls is totally doable, Ben decides that it’s okay to ask Joy out on a real date and give her a kiss, which is even better than winning the Golden Wreath. But Joy wins that too, so she gets pretty much everything and good for her because she SHOULD be rewarded for making sixty million cookies and putting up with Ben’s snarky attitude about urban living.