‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’ declares war on Christmas

Justin Jones

Charles Dickens ditches nuanced storytelling for sentimental schlock and flowing locks in “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” the most unashamed exploitation of the Christmas season in recent memory.

Director Bharat Nalluri somehow assembled a dynamite cast of actors for the hidden story behind the writing of “A Christmas Carol,” including Dan Stevens (“Beauty and the Beast”) as an oddly goofy vision of the brilliant author (his look is reminiscent of Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka) and Christopher Plummer (“All the Money in the World”) as a pitch-perfect Scrooge.

The film is an odd one. In some ways, it retells the story of “A Christmas Carol,” with Dickens living the story he creates in his mind. In others, it’s a fictionalized “Behind the Music” story of the way Dickens wrote his holiday masterpiece, encountering people and stories that inform his writing. On yet another level, it explores the life of the writer outside of his writing. The only problem here: none of those are all that good.

Similar to the original tale, the various stories lead to stark tonal shifts, going from a cheery holiday atmosphere to a dark confrontation of one’s own self. Unlike the book, however, it falls flat on its face. The brighter scenes, in which Dickens lives his life and finds inspiration for his book, generally work. They don’t do anything new, but the upbeat score and wonderful performances make for a charming, if vapid experience.

The darker scenes, in which Dickens’ confronts Scrooge, range from fun fantasy to bizarre self-psychology. Scrooge is the personification of what seems to be Dickens’ mental health issues, and Nalluri’s image of the author should probably seek help. There’s zero nuance here, painting Dickens’ repressed past as something he can just move on from after he talks to himself.

All of this begs the question: Who in the world is this movie for? It’s a fun, PG holiday romp until it’s suddenly a visual depiction of the mind of a tortured artist. Clocking in at under two hours, “The Man Who Invented Christmas” should be a breezy affair. Unfortunately, its many plot threads and frequently shifting tone make it feel longer than the most recent “Transformers.” On second thought, that’s hyperbole, nothing feels longer than that.

The film’s greatest moment is Dickens’ initial inspiration for the character of Scrooge — a rich, closed-minded, conservative businessman (ring any bells?). The man’s statements about the poor are only a couple of words away from many modern politicians, and it’s a bold move for a film that’s aiming for a Christmas audience.

Unfortunately, the rest of the movie fails to be as bold. When he was actually writing the original story, Charles Dickens appealed to the charity of his readers, making what was essentially a rebuke to the dark corners of capitalism and embracing communal generosity. In the cruelest possible twist of irony, the adaptation of this period of his life is a shameless, made-by-committee appeal to the wallets of viewers rather than their hearts. On its own, this would lead to a basic but enjoyable Christmas movie. As a film about the writing of “A Christmas Carol,” it tears down the words of its main character.

Viewers who see something interesting in the trailers for “The Man Who Invented Christmas” should instead look elsewhere. “The Muppets Christmas Carol” can fill cravings for uncommon interpretations of Dickens’ classic and Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” can satisfy those who want to see inside the mind of an
unwell artist.

“The Man Who Invented Christmas”
Rating: PG
Runtime: 105 minutes
Score: 1.5/5 stars