'Man Who Invented Christmas' proves short on cheer

Posted November 16, 2017 1:34 p.m. EST

— "The Man Who Invented Christmas" had a chance to deliver a warm serving of yuletide cheer, looking at how Charles Dickens came up with "A Christmas Carol," one of literature's most enduring tales. Instead, it plays too much like a Hallmark Channel movie with somewhat bigger stars -- creating a mundane story around a magical one.

Dan Stevens plays Dickens, who is introduced in 1843, three flops after his smash success with "Oliver Twist." Living beyond his means -- with a patient wife (Morfydd Clark), house full of kids, and desperate need for income -- he's under self-imposed pressure to conjure another hit.

Undaunted by his publisher's admonition that there's "not much of a market for Christmas books," Dickens begins feverishly working against a deadline to get the book done in time for the holiday. Along the way he receives input and inspiration from a variety of sources, from his friend and agent (Justin Edwards) to his household employees to the grouchy old guy he espies in a cemetery.

The main device employed by director Bharat Nalluri and writer Susan Coyne, however, involves the periodically blocked Dickens taking occasional dictation from his characters, particularly the crotchety figure of Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer, pulling a holiday twofer with his late addition to "All the Money in the World"), who seems to delight in mocking the author's setbacks.

All's well that ends well, obviously, so it's hard to muster too much suspense about Dickens' struggles. Yet the opportunity to have the writer experience his own Scrooge-like epiphany -- including flashbacks to his youth, and examining the complicated relationship with his freeloading father (Jonathan Pryce) -- feel a little too on the nose.

Stevens is perfectly fine as the harried scribe, and those who have seen "A Christmas Carol" a few dozen (if not hundreds) of times should derive amusement from encounters with callous aristocrats or random folks with unusual names that found their way into Dickens' tomes.

Still, the warming spark that enlivened the similarly themed "Finding Neverland," or even this year's "Goodbye Christopher Robin," proves as elusive here as Christmas bonuses and overtime pay around Scrooge's office.

The most stirring part of "The Man Who Invented Christmas," in fact, comes during the closing crawl, detailing what a phenomenon the book has been for nearly 175 years.

Thanks to its subject matter the movie could have a long tail, playing as a holiday TV schedule-stuffer for years to come. Yet at the risk of sounding as hard-hearted as you know who, this yule log could have easily skipped the theatrical stopover and, as a shrewd businessman like Ebenezer might counsel, taken the middle man out of the deal.

"The Man Who Invented Christmas" premieres Nov. 22 in the U.S. It's rated PG.