Wednesday, December 24, 2003

A soap box for Christmas

Dickens need not move aside for this yarn.

Posted By on Wed, Dec 24, 2003 at 12:00 AM

Christmas stories are creepy. Think of Dickens’ ghosts or “that old silk hat” that sent Frosty wild in the streets. St. Nick is the most chilling figure of all — an old guy who keeps tabs on kids before some late-night B&E. In many ways, Robert Vaughan’s Christmas Past fits this tradition: It’s a creepy story.

Early on, Vaughan’s protagonists, TJ and Madison Carmichael, put the kiddies in the Mercedes and embark on a peculiar trip. TJ is a high-roller in the Nashville music biz and his spouse hosts a top-rated television talk show. What’s the trouble? Their big-time careers have been taking a toll on the marital nookie, and the careerist couple has decided to split up. Before they break the news, they want to give the kids one last family Christmas, so they drive to a bed and breakfast in the Great Smoky Mountains. The broad strokes of the setup require a fair suspension of disbelief; and as the Carmichael clan drives farther and farther from their Nashville home, every thread of reality starts to unravel. On a remote back road, the GPS stops working, the new Benz breaks down and the cell phones die. Even little Timmy’s Gameboy fails mysteriously. Just when panic starts to set in — voila! A friendly farmer appears in a horse- drawn buggy, en route to the same destination.

Such mystical coincidences overwhelm Vaughan’s seasonal tale of the modern family’s search for happiness. The abundance of magical coincidences gets pretty silly, but ultimately the simple narrative suffers most from a complete absence of subtlety. The foundering relationship of Vaughan’s couple is never once shaded by nuance, and throughout the story their cartoonish reactions start to grate.

Vaughan’s presentation of Reason-for-the-Season themes is even more garish. “I’m impressed with your carriage,” TJ tells the Good Samaritan farmer who picks up the family at the roadside. “My father-in-law helped me restore it,” the farmer replies. “Like our Lord, he is a carpenter, and very good.”

When the Carmichaels arrive at the cozy country mansion of their host, Judge Ragsdale, they are beset with merry houseguests dressed in 19th century garb. The mansion has no electricity, people speak in Victorian hillbilly, and we discover that the “love of the Lord” has brought the Carmichaels back in time. But they’re too busy reading Scripture, lighting the Yule log (“to symbolize the eternity of Christ’s kingdom,” of course) and being healed by the simple joys of, ahem, Christmas past to take much notice. Despite the unintended comedy of Vaughan’s love scene (“There was no rush hour traffic … just the two of them alone in the universe. They were Adam and Eve in God’s own garden.”) the shoddy narrative is burdened with clichéd sentiments, clunky Christian soapboxing and flimsy characters.

When TJ and Madison finally “rekindle their passion” (wink, wink … nudge, nudge), their Christmas vacation quickly comes back to reality. Ragsdale informs the Carmichaels that their renewed faith in God has fixed their car. They head back to town and an Internet search reveals that (gasp!) they’ve been partying with ghosts for three days. The eerie news is written off as divine providence and the Carmichaels’ happy ever after is right around the corner.

Unfortunately for the reader, Christmas Past’s unbelievable plot isn’t the only sour cookie to swallow. Most of the excitement found in religious and secular Christmas stories involves being swept away by unlikely, magical tales. The problem here is that Vaughan’s magic act comes without a single hint of subtlety, without the glimmer of a good story that allows the audience to, at least for a moment, believe. And without that sleight of hand, all of Vaughan’s tricks fall flat.

E-mail Nate Cavalieri at letters@metrotimes.com.

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