Into everyone’s Christmas movie-watching some treacle will seep, and with The Noel Diary you may find yourself knee-deep—which isn’t all bad. This movie, which is about the relationship between a famous writer dealing with the aftermath of his estranged mother’s death and a woman who is trying to locate her birth mother, starts off okay enough, but it just doesn’t follow through to make the needed connections. So, the conclusion of these very knotty and emotional plotlines ends up feeling like a strand of Christmas lights with a wonky fuse—a dim and flickering mess, with so much potential just out of reach, which might just abruptly go dark.
Jake Turner (Justin Hartley) is a Genetically Blessed and Blandly Handsome author who writes wildly popular novels set in World War II. (Because of course they are. Trés romantique! You know, except for that whole persecution and slaughter of eleven million people and the deaths of millions and millions more in the war effort. Sorry. I get quite the bee in my bonnet about the plethora of novels romanticizing WWII. I haven’t actually read Jake’s made-up books.) He’s very affable at his book signing, taking time to answer people’s questions and even settle a couple’s small dispute over whose name should go first in the inscription. When a woman flirtatiously asks if he has plans to stay in the city he demurs that he has to get home to “his girl Ava.” She stammers that “she’s a very lucky woman,” but you and I both know that—given Jake’s warm-but-distant demeanor, his all-black wardrobe and thick-framed reading glasses, his scarf, his just scruffy enough facial hair, and the fact that this is that kind of movie—there’s about a 99.9 percent chance that Ava will in fact be a dog. And, after an obligatory drone shot of Jake’s Land Rover driving down an empty, forested road, we learn that Ava is indeed a dog (and a cute one at that), because, as Jake explains to his housekeeper Svetlana (Andrea Sooch), he likes to be alone. Does he? It doesn’t matter one way or the other, because this movie is going to show him he’s ABSOLUTELY WRONG about being alone. As the camera moves through Jake’s very neatly appointed home, there are some clues about his personality: a Bob Dylan book, a Nina Simone album, an old record player, literary awards, old typewriters, dog statues, and bottles of nice liquor. As he settles in, he turns on the radio and tunes it to jazz, so you know he’s cultured and intellectual and all that, well, I guess I can’t say jazz, but you know what I mean.
But! Just as he’s preparing for that quiet holiday season all by himself, he gets a call from a lawyer who represents his estranged mother’s estate. It turns out she died a week ago and left everything to him. I have a few questions here. Well, one really. On her way out, Svetlana hands him a bundle of fan mail, so it’s clear there are ways to reach him, and you’re telling me there aren’t any nosy neighbors from his old neighborhood or meddling former classmates absolutely chomping at the bit to be the first one to tell him this tragic news? I don’t buy it, but that’s how the movie goes. Anyway, Jake goes back to his natal home, where he hasn’t been since he graduated from high school, to learn that his mother had become a hoarder. His bedroom, though, she left untouched (and apparently dusted). He makes a pilgrimage there to visit his French New Wave poster, his Larry Bird jersey, another typewriter (yeesh, set decorators, we get the point,), a Hemingway book, and a copy of On the Road. What? No copy of Walden? No Naked Lunch? But, most importantly, there is a picture of Jake as a child with his mother and another boy. Mysterious! On his way out that first day, he stops to listen to some carolers when he runs into Ellie (Bonnie Bedelia)—artist, next door neighbor, former emotional refuge for Jake, and current plot catalyst. They exchange pleasantries and reminisce about how Jake’s mom was never “the same after that” while looking meaningfully at a tree stump that looks suspiciously fresh if they’re talking about something that happened nearly thirty years ago. The plot thickens! An aside: Do you have carolers that stroll through your neighborhood? I live in a place that strives for idyllic experiences and I have yet to see carolers free-ranging through town. (Please don’t take that as a challenge, town!) On his way home, Jake visits a cemetery, where he brushes leaves off a headstone for Benjamin Turner, “Ours for just a little while,” 1980-1987. “It’s lonely out here. And I miss you,” says Jake before walking away. So now we have the sad truth that a long time ago Jake lost his brother and everything in his family went sideways.
While cleaning out the endless clutter, Jake keeps noticing a woman standing across the street, silently staring at the house. Never forget my belief that there is an incredibly thin line between romance and horror movies, because those scenes read as super creepy. The one where she’s standing there and a school bus goes by and then she’s just there again, unchanged and completely still? I got shivers. It’s not a horror movie, though, and the woman turns out to be Rachel Campbell (Barrett Doss), an attractive woman searching for her birth mother who may have been a nanny for Jake’s family when he was very young. Jake can’t really help her, but they do connect over Nina Simone (mm hmm, I told you that record was important). I mean, they also connect over their immediate shared desire to rip each other’s clothes off, which is to say they have pretty good chemistry. Also, this is not a romantic comedy because they do not immediately hate each other.
At the last minute Jake remembers that Ellie might have information on Rachel’s mother, but since she’s not home they decide they might as well get dinner together. What a burden for these two very pretty people!! (I would like to point out that in the movie they are supposed to be about five years apart in age, but in real life Barrett Doss is about twelve years younger than Justin Hartley. Another woman who is supposed to be about thirteen years older than his character is actually only five years older than him. So, thank you to this movie for continuing to perpetuate unrealistic expectations around women and aging. I love that for us.) At dinner, Jake is very impressed by Rachel’s ability to speak multiple languages and by her plans to apply for a job at the UN. He’s less impressed to learn she has a fiancé named Alan, but don’t worry, my fine readers, Alan is little more than a paper-thin plot device designed to keep Jake and Rachel’s loins from catching fire. Rachel can barely whip up mild enthusiasm about him or valid reasons to dislike him. He mostly feels like an acquaintance she’s run into a few times at a mutual friend’s parties. I can’t fathom how they made it through a second date, let alone all the way to an engagement. And then when he shows up on a video chat?!? Well, I won’t ruin it for you, but I’m pretty sure the actor was just in costume for another movie and they were like, Yeah, yeah good enough. In all seriousness, Rachel does talk about how, for her, being adopted and not knowing her birth mom, makes her crave a sense of reliability and stability in her life.
Long story short, it turns out that the only person who will have information about Rachel’s birth mother is Jake’s father, who left Jake and his mom decades ago. For reasons that are not discussed, they cannot simply call him on the telephone for this information. They must go see him in person. At first Jake refuses, but then there’s some stuff about the universe rewarding the brave. I don’t know. Honestly, I can’t with those kinds of ableist phrases, so I kind of tuned out. I did not, however, tune out the THUNDER STORM that happens in Bridgeport, CT in the MIDDLE of DECEMBER, which I guess is meant to reflect his inner conflict? But I think it is mostly meant to highlight wet hair and his muscles inside his white t-shirt as he leans down to speak to Rachel as she sits in her car. It’s fantastic filmmaking and I am here for it.
Jake’s father lives in Cornwall Bridge,Vermont (which does not exist), so we enter the road trip portion of the movie, during which Jake explains more of the circumstances around his brother’s death and Rachel stumbles across a diary in Jake’s bag that just might explain a lot more about her birth mother. I don’t know if Cornwall Bridge is near the real Cornwall, VT, but I think they must get there via Ohio or something, because that’s pretty much the ONLY thing that would explain how long it takes them, some of the landscape, why they say they are getting on I-91 but remain on a two-lane road, and, finally, why they must stop at over night an inn because there’s a zero percent chance of getting through the “pass” with the incoming storm. (Please also note that gas stations in Vermont are not routinely outfitted with old-timey gas pumps.) They spend the night in a place called Maple Falls, which, my friend correctly pointed out, sounds like a place in Candy Land. Does there happen to be a festival the night they are there? Yes! They watch a movie outside! In Vermont! Shortly before Christmas! In lightweight coats! (Please also note that I have a lot of feelings about how Vermont is depicted in movies. It’s often the visual embodiment of someone squealing, Vermont?! OH EM GEE! I love Vermont! It’s so quaint! I love Maple Syrup! What? Oh, no I’ve never been. But I was in Connecticut once. And I hear [redacted touristy town name] is amazing.) I do like the joke about how if this were a rom-com there would only be one room left at the inn, but lo, there are two because this is a Romantic Drama (or maybe a Dramedy?)
Despite my many potshots and protestations, up until now this has been a decent movie when you’re looking for schmaltz with a holiday flavor. These two slightly lost and lonely people coming together and going on a road trip through miles and miles of the fakest snow to heal old wounds and find themselves is the right level of risk, reward, and romance for a winter’s afternoon. The leads have enough chemistry to pull off the banter and conversation that ensues in the enclosed space of the car for much of the movie (with Ava’s cute face popping in now and then from the back seat). BUT! Then the third act happens, and it all just kind of unravels. If the universe does indeed reward bravery, it is most certainly not awarding this movie any special favors. It just kind of punts on…everything. After building up the tension between Jake and his father most of the plot, their climactic scene has all the oomph of a person playing a kazoo when you bought tickets for a brass band. Plus, it’s Jake’s mother, who hasn’t been presented in the best light all along, who is finally and fully thrown under the bus. Isn’t it always. His father tried to stay, he did, but he just thought he was doing what was best by leaving, but it was Jake’s mother who prevented them from having a relationship for all those long years. And then she descended further into mental illness. But dear old dad is good as gold, living in the woods, trying to help others, and making great food. It’s those mothers you have to watch out for, you know? Not to mention that Rachel has to sit outside in the car for the better part of a day while these two men have their reconciliation. Give the woman some noise canceling headphones and a place by the fire! You two wouldn’t be together without her! And then there is the take on Rachel’s very young mother, who was seventeen, ejected from her own family, and the “glue” that was holding the bereft Turners together. Uh, this is a lot to heap on a young woman’s shoulders, no?
Anyway, back in the present, Jake and Rachel’s romance sputters and gutters like a candle with a too-short wick. Jake takes it upon himself to do something that’s expressly against Rachel’s wishes. Are there consequences? Ha! Are there ever consequences for guys who look like Jake? Faced with finally having closure on some very serious issues, Rachel says, Nah. It’s like the people involved in this movie looked at all these interesting, entwined strands of narratives they’d spun out thus far and said, You know what? Screw it. Somebody hand me the scissors. And they just lopped it off, tied a knot, and called it done. Literally. It has the most abrupt ending I have ev—