“Whatever you do,” Big City journalist Mary Lady (Storm Steenson) is told by her boss (Jessica Moniere) at the beginning of Jake Horowitz’s Cup of Cheer, before being dispatched to write an article about the ‘world famous Christmas cheer’ of Snowy Heights, “don’t fall in love with some small-town eight-out-of-ten stranger and find the true meaning of Christmas. I’ve lost too many good reporters that way.”
Of course perky, plucky Mary will do everything to the letter that her Boss has advised against, and so will conform to all the conventions of a syrupy Hallmark Christmas special – yet Horowitz’s aim here is less to repeat cliché than to lampoon it in a series of subversively self-conscious flourishes. Mary has a habit of uttering her narration in front of other characters, and she and other characters often break into the sort of pure, pointlessly redundant expositionese (“that’s my hometown – where I grew up”, “Christmas Eve – that’s the day before Christmas!”, etc.) that both exposes and ridicules the building blocks of this rigidly codified seasonal subgenre.
Cup of Cheer follows all the beats of a Yuletide romance: Mary has a chocolate-spilling meet-cute with Chris Miss (Alexander Oliver), discovers that his traditional cafe Cup of Cheer risks being shut down and taken over on Christmas Eve by bland national franchise Cocoa-Flaps – whose flatulent owner Mai Ex (Shawn Vincent) is in fact Mary’s ex – and so she sets about saving Cup of Cheer, falling in love and, yes, finding the true meaning of Christmas. Yet from this familiar festive tree are hung plenty of surreal baubles that deconstruct . Chris’ little brother Keith (Liam Marshall) works nights in a gay stripclub. The local diner’s sweet old owner Mrs Clovenwitch (Helly Chester) endlessly references her long list of sexually ambidextrous adventures, and has a background in child abduction. Authuh (Jacob Hogan), a lord from old England who has inexplicably time-travelled to present-day Canada, generously bespatters everything in queer innuendo while casually shooting and eating children.
The end result is a knowing spoof, doing to the Christmas movie what Airplane! (1980) did to disaster movies, Top Secret (1984) to spy movies and Scary Movie (2000) to, well, scary movies. The cracker-style gags are hit and miss, but also come thick (as treacle) and fast enough never to outstay their welcome, while every banal platitude – about love, togetherness, family, small-town values and the Christmas spirit – is punctured with a priapic punchline. As a pastiche of a Saint Nicholas niche, the aims of Cup of Cheer are modest, but it is a film that knows exactly what it is and what it wants – not unlike Mary who, with extreme metacinematic moxie, tells Chris: “I’d rather be small-town hot than low-budget Christmas movie parody leading man material – but that’s just my type.”
The kind of parodic confectionery that Horowitz bakes up here may, like the gingerbread cookies of Chris’ late Grandma Coco, be merely ‘critically tolerated’, but Cup of Cheer gets to have its cake and eat it too, sending up not just the terribly hackneyed fantasy films that fill our screens around this time of year, but also itself.
© Anton Bitel