I love movies with big ensemble casts—my favorite being The Royal Tenenbaums. Wes Anderson's wonderfully weird Tenenbaum family is equal parts J.D. Salinger and Addams Family: funny, broken, human, and so idiosyncratic that you just know they're all based on people Anderson knows in real life. They're a pretty pitiful lot, really, but, because each of them is so uniquely characterized and so believable in their frailty, we love them anyway, in all their dysfunctional glory.
Christmas in the Clouds, the debut feature from director Kate Montgomery, is also about a dysfunctional family. These folks aren't related by blood, though; rather, they're a family of co-workers, each of them serving in a different capacity at a struggling ski resort. Oh, and they all happen to be Native American—an astonishingly rare moviegoing sight.
Unlike the Tenenbaums, though, many of these hotel workers come up a bit short in the personality department; in fact, for some, their ethnicity is the most interesting thing about them. Not all of them are blasé —Graham Greene, for example, is a hoot as Earl, the resort's animal-loving, vegetarian chef whose job requires him to cook and serve meat. Likewise, old chief Joe (Sam Vlahos) is an adequately mysterious, compelling figure whose voice-over narration introduces and concludes the film. Others, though, aren't so lucky, sometimes too deeply rooted in cliché s—like the bookish, romance-novel-reading clerk Mary (Sheila Tousey) and the no-nonsense, workaholic manager Ray (Tim Vahle), both of whom seem to have stepped out of made-for-TV land and onto the Big Screen.
This ragtag family has their world shaken up when they hear that a popular travelers' guide is sending a critic to review their resort. Thus, Ray and his staff do everything in their power to ensure that the writer's stay goes as smoothly as possible. Only, the person they think is the critic actually isn't the critic at all. Mary immediately pegs Tina (Mariana Tosco), a tourist from New York, as the undercover reviewer, when in reality the writer is the cranky old curmudgeon Stu O'Malley (M. Emmet Walsh)—who, needless to say, has just about the worst hotel experience imaginable.
And the complications continue. See, Tina is actually in town to secretly scout out her pen pal, with whom she has been exchanging flirtatious letters but has never actually met. When she arrives at the hotel she assumes that the handsome Ray is her long-distance lover. In actuality, the man she's been exchanging letters with is Joe—Ray's father. (Hmmm … maybe these folks are as dysfunctional as the Tenenbaums.)
The requisite hijinks ensue, and to that end the film has plenty of warmth and a few big belly laughs—there's no denying that it's pleasant to watch. Alas, its craftsmanship leaves something to be desired. What could be a charming, offbeat ensemble comedy instead sticks to cliché s and predictability, right down to the typical rom-com love story, the sometimes-ridiculous cases of mistaken identity, uninspired plot contrivances (A snowstorm? In the Rocky Mountains? No way!), and yes, even a few moments of Home Alone-style slapstick mayhem.
It's bad writing, but the casting is a bit better. Though Ray and Tina—the two central characters—are both rather bland, the supporting cast hams it up, creating some guiltless humor out of the awkward script. Greene is especially funny as Earl, and Tousey does an admirable job of making a cookie-cutter character memorably goofy. Meanwhile, Vlahos is warm and friendly as Joe; we fully believe him as an old, sagely Chief who flirts with young women—thinking they're much older, of course—and enjoys nothing more than a good game of bingo.
The most commendable thing about the film is its portrayal of Native American culture. Montgomery and her cast never go out of their way to be politically correct, to shame us into celebrating diversity, or to portray Native Americans as anything that they're not. Rather, the film depicts regular folks leading regular lives—folks who just happen to belong to a culture that we're not used to seeing on the silver screen. It doesn't fall into unnecessary cliché s—there's no mention, for example, of a casino, and no characters who wear feathers or headdresses—but it also doesn't skimp on showing us some interesting scenes of Native American life. American Indians are what they are, and this movie is honest and unbiased in its portrayal.
It's worth mentioning that, while the film might sound like a good choice for family viewing, there are a few moments that might make some parents hesitant. There are a couple of rather bawdy jokes, and premarital sex between two characters is implied—perhaps even condoned. These things are not really inappropriate to the story itself—and indeed, Christmas in the Clouds is still far tamer than any comedy Hollywood has put out recently—but it seems like a shame that a movie could come so close to being family-friendly and be marred by just a few moments of mature content.
Not that it's really that big of a loss. The film is being billed as a classic screwball romantic-comedy a la Howard Hawks and Frank Capra, but, truth be told, it's just not nearly as interesting as the films by those two great filmmakers. The plot is just too pedestrian, the writing just too limp, and most of the characters just too boring for this to be anything more than a modestly entertaining diversion, and a noble attempt at bringing Native American culture to the Cineplex.Discussion starters
- In what kind of light does the film portray Native American culture? Has it affected your understanding of Native Americans?
- Discuss Ray's attitudes toward the restaurant critic and toward his affair with Tina. Is his perspective right or wrong?
- Do you think it's possible to fall in love with someone via written correspondence, without meeting them? Why or why not?
- Do you think Ray's character changes by the end of the film? How about Joe's character? Stu O'Malley's? In what ways have any of these characters changed?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Rated PG for mild sexual content and some language, the film is mostly family-friendly. The language is mild, and there's a little Home Alone-style slapstick violence. There is a rather bawdy joke in which a mouse gets into a man's clothing and makes it look like he has an erection. We also see Ray and Tina in bed together after having premarital sex, though no nudity is seen.
Photos © Copyright Majestic Films
Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 11/23/05
With a reputation that could earn it the nickname "My Big Fat Native American Christmas," a 2001 film festival crowdpleaser is finally making its way to a wider release.
In Christmas in the Clouds, a college graduate takes charge of a Native American ski lodge and tries to turn it into a professional operation before a travel critic shows up to check it out. Family dynamics, offbeat employees, and a case of mistaken identity … it all sounds suspiciously like an episode of the old "Newhart" television series. But the fact that the cast is made up of Native Americans, and that the film presents a refreshingly contemporary view of Native American culture, makes this title stand out as a unique, memorable production.
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says, "A largely Native American cast notwithstanding, this is basically an old-fashioned romantic comedy which, in its modest way, should help dispel misguided notions of that often stereotyped ethnic group. … With its quirky, gentle humor, this low-key story of love and forgiveness will make respectable holiday viewing."
Mainstream critics are pleased with this mild-mannered holiday comedy.