November 16, 2005 -- “Noel” is a different kind of Christmas story, one that includes such non-traditional Christmas concepts as reincarnation and astral projection. Despite its mystical influences, this is a very modern Christmas story about lost souls finding unusual connections, inspiration and redemption during a snowy day and night in New York City.
This is the first directing effort from noted actor Chazz Palminteri (“A Bronx Tale” and “Bullets Over Broadway”) and it is not what you would expect from a man who usually plays gangsters. It turns out Palminteri is a softie who likes happy endings. He also believes in angels and the power of spirituality. The plot has multiple storylines that intersect at times. One storyline follows a young couple about to be married, Mike Riley (played by Paul Walker of “The Fast and the Furious”) and Nina (Penelope Cruz of “Captain Corelli's Mandolin”). Another storyline has Rose (Susan Sarandon of “The Client”) enduring the holiday blues while caring for her bed-ridden mother. Another storyline has Jules (Marcus Thomas of “Ring of Fire”) trying a mad scheme to recreate his one happy Christmas experience in a hospital emergency room.
Rose, a very kind woman at heart, befriends Charlie, a mysterious ex-priest, and he repays the favor in a most unexpected way. During a particularly dark moment Rose is befriended by Charlie, who seems to pop into her life at the most opportune times. Mike Riley and his fiancée, Nina, quarrel over Riley's overbearing jealousy. Riley is changed when he meets a strange man, Artie (Alan Arkin of “Glengarry Glen Ross”) who believes that Riley is the reincarnation of Artie's dead wife. Riley is upset that Artie keeps following him around and the two end up in a scuffle. Later, when Riley learns the whole story about Artie, and at the same time he learns a valuable lesson about controlling his own temper. This leads to a scene between Riley and Artie in which Artie is at last forgiven for a tragic act of violence which has haunted him for years. It is the most touching scene in the movie.
Screenwriter David Hubbard (“Delivering Milo”) has come up with a most unusual way to deliver a Christmas message. He uses unconventional plot devices and avoids the trap of too much sentimentality. The story works because of the strong performances by Sarandon, Walker, Williams and Arkin. Walker's performance is a revelation. His previous films showed little evidence of the acting ability he demonstrates in this film. Sarandon, Williams and Arkin, of course, are all veteran, award-winning actors, so their good performances are to be expected. Arkin is one of Hollywood's hidden gems, a superb, versatile character actor with an unusually low profile.
The subplot involving Jules is weak and could have been cut out of the film altogether. There are times when the characters behave very much out of character in order to serve the whims of the plot, like the scene where Rose wanders into a stranger's apartment for no good reason just so she can cross paths with another of the movie's characters, Nina. This rings false. If such a meeting of the characters is really necessary, and I don't think it is, it could have been handled a lot more gracefully. The plot should serve the characters, not vice versa.
This film looks like it was shot in a hurry on a limited budget. There is top talent in front of and behind the camera, however. The cast is solid. The soaring musical score is by veteran award-winning composer Alan Menken (“Aladdin”). The director of photography is Russell Carpenter (“Titanic”). It is far from being a perfect film, but in the end, it is a satisfying one. If you are looking for a Christmas film that is unconventional, that has a lot of heart without wallowing in sentimentality, this is a good bet. This film rates a B.
I saw this film on DVD (it is now for sale) and it has the usual features, a “making of” documentary which includes interviews with the cast. Brief cast bio texts are also included in the extras. There are two soundtracks on the DVD, one is the standard 5.1 surround track and the other is a two-channel commentary track featuring director Chazz Palminteri. There are no alternate language soundtracks or subtitles. The DVD features an anamorphic widescreen presentation in an aspect ratio 1.78:1.
Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information. More information on Noel is available at screen media films.