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A carol once removed - 'The Man Who Invented Christmas'

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One of the most beloved holiday tales of all time is “A Christmas Carol.” The Charles Dickens classic has seen innumerable iterations on screen and stage alike – the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his journey from miserable miser to generous gentleman is a constant at this time of year.

It’s a story that has been told in just about every conceivable way at the movie theater – straight and for laughs, live-action and animated and even with Muppets. So how does one find a new take on such a tale?

Well, instead of telling the story, why not tell the story of telling the story?

That’s what we get in “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” a bland and inoffensive film that tells us the story of Charles Dickens writing “A Christmas Carol.” It’s perfectly pleasant holiday fare, albeit perhaps better suited for a straight-to-streaming or cable run rather than a cinematic release. It’s lightweight fluff that passes the time well enough, but doesn’t bring anything particularly engaging to the table.

Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens, TV’s “Legion”) has been in a bit of a funk since the runaway success of “Oliver Twist.” He’s written three commercial flops in a row and is starting to come up against the financial realities of that fact. He needs a hit – for his wife Kate (Morfydd Clark, “Interlude in Prague”) and family, of course, but also to shut down his critics.

With his friend and representative John Forster (Justin Edwards, “The Trip to Spain”) by his side, Dickens commits to writing a new book – a Christmas book to be set for release in time for the holiday. This despite the fact that Christmas is just a few weeks away. His plan is also complicated by the reappearance of his father John (Jonathan Pryce, “The Ghost and the Whale”), an irrepressible rogue searching for yet another handout.

It is only in his study where Dickens can shut out the world and meet his characters. Quite literally, in fact - they actually appear, speaking to and interacting with the author. The first is, of course, Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer, “The Star”) himself – and he’s just as sour and ornery as you would imagine him to be.

As Dickens wanders through London, gleaning various inspirations from the environment around him, Scrooge is a constant naysaying shadow, demeaning and demanding. And when Dickens finds himself struggling with writer’s block, he realizes that he is going to have to confront some of the less appealing aspects of his own character – and his own past – if he’s going to be able to finish this book in time for Christmas and avoid the financial ruin that would befall him and his loved ones should he fail to meet the deadline.

“The Man Who Invented Christmas” is fine. There’s nothing unpleasant about it. Nor is there anything particularly exciting about it. It simply … is. And there’s nothing wrong with that – when you’re talking holiday movies, fine is plenty good enough. This film will be no one’s idea of a seasonal classic, but there are plenty of worse ways to spend your Yuletide viewing time.

Director Bharat Nalluri does a workmanlike job here. One never gets the sense of a distinctive vision, but he is clearly a competent filmmaker – everything about the aesthetic is adequate. Susan Coyne’s screenplay – adapted from the book of the same name by Les Standiford – is equally meh. It’s too bad, really; Coyne is best known for her work on the TV series “Slings & Arrows” – some of that show’s spirit could have gone a long way in buoying this film.

Stevens is all bright-eyed animated energy as Dickens; it’s actually a pretty good performance, but not good enough to elevate the film around him. Plummer is probably the best part of the movie, bringing Scrooge to squinting, grumbling life. He’s a jerk, but a fun-to-watch jerk. Pryce is throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks; he’s OK, but there’s a lack of focus that you don’t often see from the old pro. The rest of the cast is as inoffensive and unmemorable as the movie itself, with very little in the way of standout performances.

“The Man Who Invented Christmas” doesn’t bring a lot to the table. The story that it tells simply isn’t engaging enough, despite the best efforts of Plummer, Stevens and company to liven it up. That being said, it’s not a bad addition to the holiday movie landscape. Are there better versions of “A Christmas Carol” out there? Absolutely. But if you’re looking for a different take that offers a pleasant seasonal diversion for a couple of hours, you could definitely do much worse.

[2.5 out of 5]

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