The Christmas Setup is a sweet movie that sometimes moves more slowly than a line of cars in a 1980s mall parking lot at Christmas-time. Personally, I have a deep wish that they had kept the same storyline of Fran Drescher as a widowed mother determined to set up her home-for-the-holidays, somewhat uptight, big-city lawyer son with the local, laid-back, handsome, self-made tech genius philanthropist and Christmas tree salesman, but switched it to a Hanukkah theme. It could have been called The Hanukkah Hook-up or The Menorah Match-Up. Think of how much more Yiddish Fran Drescher could have used? It would have been glorious. But my husband was probably right when he pointed out that, this being Lifetime’s first foray in having LGBTQIA+ leads for holiday movies, they may have felt a Hanukkah theme would have been pushing too many boundaries all at once. That’s kind of a sad statement, but let’s not get too hung up on it, because this movie is charming without my tinkering and, while it’s not wildly subversive or anything, for a Lifetime movie rated for everyone they do manage to drop in more than zero vaguely suggestive asides. Sexy times! No, not really. (But Lifetime should still take my advice and make a cozy Hanukkah movie starring Fran Drescher.)

Hugo Spencer (Ben Lewis), a lawyer at a New York Firm, has been practicing all afternoon for his Big Conversation with his boss. Of course, his best friend Madelyn McKay (Ellen Wong) insists he’s going to do great, but Hugo, who always wants to be perfect, isn’t so sure. He tells his boss (Glen Grant) that “no one is more dedicated to this firm,” and I wonder if anyone has actually uttered this sentence in real life. His boss responds that he knows Hugo worked last Christmas Eve and “that’s beyond dedication.” I love the implication that going to work on Christmas Eve (not even Christmas Day, mind you) is equivalent to heroics.

Hugo in a suit and tie sitting on a white loveseat in his boss's office. Behind him is a wood colored wall decorated with a single silver wreath. To his left is a Christmas tree with silver ornaments. There are large windows on either side of the loveseat.
The decorations are sending me. What’s with the single landing strip of lights across the back of the loveseat? And when Hugo stands up the wreath almost forms a halo around his head. Coincidence? Symbolism?
Hugo's boss, George Vogel, an attractive Black man with short grey hair and a grey and black beard, wearing a suit and tied.
More importantly, why does this man and his Genetically Blessed Face only have one scene in the entire movie?

I’m pretty damn sure Hugo’s not the only lawyer trying to make partner who is going to work on Christmas Eve in Manhattan. Hugo asks about the partner position (apparently for the third time), and while his boss loves that Hugo is a “details guy,” he says they’re not sure Hugo is ready to be made partner. (Do you think Hugo being a “details guy” will be wildly relevant to the movie? Without a doubt! Also, do you really just ask about becoming a partner at the firm on your way out the door for vacation? It seems very casual. Why didn’t he just pass him a note that said: BT dubs, I still want to be made partner. Is that going to happen? Circle yes or no.)  Clearly stung, Hugo drops an ultimatum, saying that if they won’t make him a partner by the New Year, he’ll have to look for work elsewhere. BOOM! And then he leaves to meet up with Madelyn, drink hot cocoa, freak the fuck out, and go ice skating. Madelyn, a third grade teacher, has also drawn her own line in the sand by telling her family she won’t be joining them for their Christmas vacation in the Bahamas. Madelyn is making the really tough choices.

Madelyn and Hugo holding cups of hot chocolate with ice skates over their shoulders as they walk by a very decorated shop window.
These two have some real chemistry together and the whole balance of opposites. Hugo is all worry and kvetch while Madelyn is more hope-for-the-best and chin up charm. Either on its own would be annoying, but together they’re pretty charming.

What?!? More drama! Why would she do that? Why, clearly so that Hugo can invite her home with him to Milwaukee for Christmas with his mom Kate (Fran Drescher) and his brother Aiden (Chad Connell), who will be returning from overseas military duty. Madelyn hasn’t seen Aiden in years, but you can trust she’s going to very much like what she sees. And there we have our B-side romance! It never ceases to amaze me how people in these movies don’t have access to social media or digital photos when it comes to seeing certain people. Hugo’s mom is all up in everyone’s business and she considers Madelyn family. You know they are at least Facebook friends and you know Kate is proudly sharing photos of Aiden. Yes, I know that’s beside the point. I’m not trying to ruin anyone’s magic or anything. It’s just a real sticking point for me. 

Kate has a lot planned for Hugo and Madelyn during their visit, all of which is carefully labeled on a giant wall calendar. Or, all of it except for the most important part of her plan: Meet-cute Hugo right into Patrick Ryan’s (Blake Lee) flannel clad arms. Holy candy canes, I wish that had been written on the calendar AND that we’d gotten a close-up of it! It really would have been perfection.

Close up of a chalk board wall with a calendar drawn on it and filled in with many events on each day.
All my respect to whatever set designer, production assistant, intern, etc. was tasked with writing out this very detailed calendar.

Anyway, what grown man doesn’t want his mother meddling in his love life by secretly staging run-ins with the man he had a massive crush on in high school before he was ready to be open about his sexuality? Actually, Hugo is no more upset about this than about anything else. He is generally a worrier, a perfectionist, and a—God forgive me, I say this with love—a bit of a whiner. He does a lot of flopping on his childhood bed, throwing up his hands in frustration, and assuming things are impossible.

Hugo sitting in his childhood room with his head in his hands rubbing his temples.
Kate asked him to do a few household chores. I don’t mean to judge, but this seems like a very big reaction to being asked to change a few lightbulbs. If this were one of my children I would ask them if maybe there was something going on other than the lightbulbs that they wanted to talk about.

Of course, it’s meant to contrast with Patrick who is very laid back and positive. In high school, Patrick was class president, popular, and already openly gay; something that Hugo brings up at least a million times until Patrick practically begs him to stop. Then, after inventing and selling an app that uses statistical modeling to answer questions (kind of like an eight ball, they say, except an eight ball doesn’t use any statistical modeling), Patrick retired, moved home, and started a foundation. He’s enthusiastic about living in Milwaukee, near his father, and about being part of the growing LGBTQIA+ community there. And he has a beard, drives a truck, runs a non-profit Christmas tree lot, and wears a lot of flannel. The opposites, they do attract.

Patrick, a white man with dark brown hair and a scruffy beard wearing a brown hoodie and red plaid flannel shirt.
Oh, well, hello Patrick who just happens to be delivering a tree when Hugo is home alone screwing in light bulbs (is that a euphemism?). Kate is subtle like oncoming train. But she’s effective.

(Side note: Blake Lee was in CRUEL SUMMER where he played a character I did not like, and it took me awhile to place him and to realize why I was getting occasional red flag vibe. His character here does not have red flags.)

For a movie that only runs an hour and twenty-five minutes, The Christmas Setup has a surprising number of subplots—saving a historical landmark, a backstory of a former train station owner and his secret romance, Hugo’s job, Hugo and Aiden’s relationship, Hugo’s rediscovery of woodworking, and Aiden and Madelyn’s relationship—which makes it feel meandering and plodding at times. The movie also feels like someone had a LOT of ideas that got left on the editing room floor, and some pieces of the plot might have fit together slightly better if we had the benefit of knowing what was left out. To be frank, I thought the movie ran closer to two hours, which isn’t necessarily bad, just a fact you should know.

Hugo and Madelyn looking at a sign that says Coming Soon All New Train Kiosk with a drawing of a modern looking shelter for kiosks instead of the old train station.
Imagine a movie like this having a plot line that involves the proposed demolition of a beloved historical landmark! How totally groundbreaking!
Madelyn in an off-the-shoulder orange top and Aiden in a sweater.
Fine. It still doesn’t make sense that they wouldn’t have seen pictures of each other, but they are adorable. I approve.

But does it matter if it feels longer when you’re watching Fran Drescher? I guess that’s a pretty subjective question. I found her entirely endearing, warm, and funny. She manages to orchestrate Hugo’s love life without it feeling overbearing or controlling, which is an impressive feat. I’m a sucker for every single time she squeals and then yells Patrick with her New York accent. There is a scene when she and Hugo are discussing her involvement in a local protest and Hugo asks, “You got arrested?” She responds “Oh, just a little bit,” with a shrug. It’s a line that would fall flat from most people’s lips, but not from hers.

Kate with her hands in the prayer position, looking toward the sky and smiling.
Honestly, Kate could really go either way on the whole Patrick/Hugo relationship. Potato, Pa-tah-to, really, This is not her clapping her hands together in thankful prayer after they do something simple like, I don’t know, have a conversation.

Ben Lewis and Blake Lee are married in real life and their on screen chemistry feels somewhat comfortable and worn in. That’s not an insult. It works for this kind of movie, where you know there isn’t going to any kind of passion beyond a kiss or two. Though I will say that there’s a moment where Patrick reaches out to fix Hugo’s hair, their eyes lock, and there is palpable heat. Honestly, sometimes in Christmas rom-coms you’re lucky if it feels like people were filming the romantic scenes on the same soundstage. So actual sparks? Very exciting. Plus, they kiss at least two or three times, so, relatively speaking, things get PRE-TTY racy. Speaking of which, when Hugo is helping Patrick unload a Christmas tree he says something about getting the bottom and then kind of rolls his eyes because he realizes what he’s said to the still hot guy he had a crush on in high school. The same thing happens when Hugo asks Patrick to get a box of balls down from a wall. It’s silliness, but unexpected for this kind of movie. There are also moments that clearly make an effort to be inclusive of the larger LGBTQIA+ community, which easily could have been scrubbed, and it’s just really nice that they weren’t.

Hugo wearing the station managers hat while he and Patrick check out the office of the old train station manager.
Romance movies love nothing more than to see sparks flying over dusty relics of someone’s life. My favorite part is that people almost never have to dig to find the interesting or key pieces of information. They flip to the right page or a pictures falls from the pages of an old book.
Patrick leaning over Hugo's shoulder as he helps him adjust his Santa costume. There is a moment of attraction and heat.
Well, hello Santa!
Patrick and Hugo trapped on the roof together while putting up lights and the ladder falls down.
What?!? These two capable grown men get stuck on the roof together when the ladder falls down? No! How unexpected! What did you say? That roof looks low enough that they could safely jump down? I’m not sure why you want to let facts get in the way of things here.
Hugo and Patrick having a romantic picnic dinner at the Christmas tree lot.
This is very romantic. I love all the lights. But I will complain (of course, I will) about two things. 1. They do not eat. 2. They would be freezing. Why did the wardrobe department decide they could not wear weather appropriate clothing? Hats? Ear muffs? Thicker coats? That open fire is so far away from them and it’s not doing anything!!
Patrick and Hugo staring intensely at each other as they get close to kissing.
Hello! The way they are looking at each other is, like, basically pornographic for a Christmas movie.
Hugo and Patrick sitting in the back of Patrick's truck, kissing under the green sky of the Northern lights.
The kiss is very sweet, but I have to go put on five more layers because I’m freezing just looking at them.

The story is more of less what you expect of a Christmas movie. There is a thriving neighborhood association that has a plethora of events leading up to Christmas, all of which will somehow involve Hugo and Patrick being thrown together. There are nefarious outside forces at work determined to raze an Important Historical Landmark (in this case it’s a train station) that would drastically change Christmas for the town. All hope appears lost until Hugo (and his penchant for details) spots the seemingly glaringly obvious loophole that could Save the Future of Christmas. There is a hidden history that, in this case, also adds a bit of historical context to prejudice faced by LGBTQIA+ couples. Hugo and Patrick will go on some very adorable dates. Patrick sets up a whole dinner for them outside at the Christmas tree lot he runs, and I will be appalled when they appear to eat none of the food. They drive out of town to see the Northern Lights, and I will be shouting at the screen that they need to put on some actual winter coats!! Hats! Where are your hats!?! Scarves only work when your wrap them around your neck!! What the hell people? Of COURSE you’re cold, Hugo. You’re dressed for early fall when the average low is 25F/-4C! Bundle the fuck up or get naked together and climb inside a sleeping bag. This isn’t rocket science. Just when Hugo and Patrick seem to be getting close, Hugo will be offered The Law Partner Position He’s Always Wanted, but it will require he move to London. Of course, he will keep this a secret, only telling Madelyn, while he tries to decide what to do. There will be Holiday Family traditions where new love blooms, secrets are spilled, and all hope of love seems lost. And there will be an ending that, in this case, is not perfectly tied up with a bow, but satisfying, romantic, and hopeful. 

Overall Rating on the Chronically Streaming Pain Scale:

1-Comfortable: Maybe there are some annoying twinges here and there, but overall the good outweighs the bad.

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