When is $750K a pittance? When it’s Hollywood-oriented and gets you a feature-length film, shot over sixty-days and employs no less than the formidable and jauntily avuncular Elliott Gould (M*A*S*H, Ocean’s Eleven, Friends). When do you say Mazel Tov? When that film blasts out of the holiday film gate like Seabiscuit on fire and ignites a dynamite line straight to Hanukkah and Christmas movie mainstays.
Switchmas (2012, Von Piglet Productions) is so ding-dang cheerful, so sweet, so good-natured, so family-friendly, so inclusive, so sprightly, so hopeful that one just might puke from its syrupy tinge, if it was not such a fun film. Switchmas is Disney-quality, without the Disney-dollars. Should you find your list of holiday flicks in need of an update, would it kill you to add Switchmas? It slots in beautifully with the other tent poles holding firm the genre: Elf, A Christmas Story, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Christmas Vacation et al.
Cheer up, Seth Cohen! It’s an O.C. Christmukkah! Photo: TheChanel
Mr. Gould, known lovingly to so many of us as Jack Geller, Ross & Monica’s dad, isn’t the only point-of-light in the Little Film That Could. David Deluise (Wizards of Waverly Place, Stargate-SG1) portrays Max Finkelstein, an optimistic auteur on the fringes of Hollywood and president of Finkelstein Films: “Making the World You Want To See”. Max believes he has everything but “a name” to catapult him to Woody Allenesque fame and respect. (If The Reindeer From Planet 9 can’t get him an Oscar, what can?) As Max tells a potential client (art imitates life here), “Believe me! You don’t need big money to make a movie with big heart!” When “a name” drops in his lap, Max gets the filmic opportunity of a lifetime. The name appears in the form of has-been, aging, bubble-gum starlet Jennifer Cameo, best-known for her role as Desperate Jane (played by Julianne Christie).
“I am Desperate Jane! I have fans and a blog and I am in control!”
The conflict? To optimize Ms. Cameo’s last gasp of stardom, Max must personally rip out and eat his own son’s heart.
“Its’ the Finkelstein Christmas tree!”
“Finkelsteins do not have Christmas trees.”
“You know why! We’re Jewish!”
“Well do we have to be?”
“I mean at Christmas?”
“You know what? Heritage, tradition, culture. Who needs it?”
Resistance is futile. Therein lies the rub. Little Ira J. Finkelstein wants nothing more than to celebrate Christmas. “He’s obsessed with The Christmas!” To assuage this desire, Max and Mama Rosie agree to take him to Aspen for Christmas, land of twinkle lights, snowy windowsills, hot cocoa and Louis Vuitton luggage. Then, Miss Cameo is attached to The Reindeer From Planet 9 and Aspen go bye-bye. “If this goes good, we can go to Aspen every year”. Instead, even after a heart-melting plea from Ira about promises and mishpucha, Mom and Dad ship him off, to where else? “Florida, for The Christmas”. Now, a holiday with the Flah-ri-dah grandparents includes a dream grampy: supportive, doting and effervescent Sam Finkelstein, played to freylech perfection by Elliott Gould.
In classic, Shakespearean-style though, during Ira’s layover at the airport, on his way to “stupid Florida”, he meets fellow holiday misanthrope Mikey Amato: a poor, Christian boy of newly-divorced parents who -wait for it- wants nothing more than to spend Christmas on a warm beach with some rich grandparents. Poor little shnook, he’s on his way to “stupid Christmastown” for a week of gift-giving, parade-going, snowman-building and cocoa-drinking with his gentle, gentile, WASPy cousins, who, fortunately, haven’t seen him in quite a while. Boom! A quick switch of some nerd glasses, an old parka, bangs brushed down and the convenient exposure that even Ira’s own grandparents haven’t seen him in quite a while either, and voilà! You’ve got The Switchmas. “That’s no Finkelstein! It’s a different kid! What, is he blind?!”
There’s even a pup. Any good holiday film has a dog. This little guy is Killer, a.k.a. Mistletoe: a big-headed, sweet-eyed pit bull who brings to mind The Little Rascals’ Petey.
To boot, if you happen to have a grandparent-Jonesing, Switchmas can assuage that, too. Mikey’s all too-foreign poolside, beachfront, grandparent-sojourn in The Sunshine State is a non-stop party of chocolate geld, fruity drinks, positive affirmations and socks-and-sandals. To this girl, it sounds equally perfect to my own Christmastown luxuries.
(Can we talk?) Raised in a beautifully festive Christmas household, as in Mom could teach Martha Stewart a thing or two, I was annually blessed with a pile of presents that would make Santa blush and enough hugs and kisses for a Strawberry Shortcake episode; it was a veritable embarrassment of riches that happily continues to this day. What did I lack, however? Grandparents. Always feeling I missed out on something grand in this respect, characters like Sam and Ruth Finkelstein bring a broad smile to my gentile pearlies. Moreover, my paternal great-grandparents and grandparents were Jewish, hailing from Vienna, Austria and, eventually, New York City (The Bronx and Long Island): Jakob & Irma Gerstl, and Rudi & Rosalyn Gerstle, respectively. Because I never got to know them, my noodle has compensated over the years with a special love for vintage handbags, antique jewelry, The Golden Girls, Agatha Christie novels and Queen Elizabeth II. (What is in Her Majesty’s purse, BTW? Did you notice she even has it next to her on the floor in the 4G Royal Portrait? Dying to know. I bet Werther’s Originals, a Waterman pen and a surplus of Irish-linen hankies.) As Angela philosophizes on The Office, “Some of us don’t have grandmothers. Some of us have to be our own grandmothers.”
Best of all, for those of us endlessly searching Netflix’ “Recently Added” queue for the unequaled, quintessentially ’90s TV-series Northern Exposure, the fair Cynthia Geary plays Libby Wilson, the beautifully-blonde auntie with the rosy, mountain-air glow who awaits her, fortunately, long-unseen nephew in Christmastown, WA. True, she is meant to look haggard and toiled, the overworked mom of three and neglected wife to an alcoholic, unemployed schmegegy of a dad; but the MUA failed here, folks. Despite the tousled locks and the persistent frown, Geary (Northern Exposure, Smoke Signals) looks as fresh-scrubbed and nature-girl beautiful as she did twenty-plus years ago as Shelly Tambo-Vincour in the wilds of Cicely, AK. (Apropos, Northern Exposure was shot on location in Roslyn, WA; Switchmas was shot in Leavenworth, WA and Seattle.)
As with any good film serving as part-morality play, there are a few direct lessons involved. Unaware of the notable, Jewish contributions to Christmas song and film? Pay close attention to Christmastown’s Santa Claus, Murray Lefkowitz. (This means you, Garrison Keillor.)
“A Jewish Santa?”
“Who else would work on Christmas?”
Fretting about the melding of Hanukkah and Christmas on the proverbial celluloid? Meh. Christmas is a mélange, a spiritual and pagan amalgam of millennia stewed in winter celebration, thanksgiving and festivity. The Christmas we know today was not celebrated until 4thC C.E., when Emperor Constantine defected from his pagan beliefs and essentially founded Christianity. He declared the 25th as the certifiable day of joy to coincide with the same time during which the ancient Babylonians, Romans, Celts and Norsemen had already been celebrating for eons, knowing full well he would not be able to stop them from said-jubilation and Bacchanalian endeavours.
In the end, I am a wordsmith; words mean something to me and are not to be tossed about hither and thither. Therefore, I refrain from the ignominy of such phrases as “government aid”, “literally starving” and, worst of all, “instant classic”. However, I am finding it sehr difficult to refrain from the latter. Switchmas might just be that, an instant classic. Only time will tell, and JennyPop’s annually-updated, recommended, Christmas-viewing list.
Abyssinia and Merry Christmas, Ira J. Finkelstein!
Because this stuff is important, especially if your name is listed:
David Deluise as Max Finkelstein
Elijah Nelson as Ira J. Finkelstein
Elliott Gould as Sam Finkelstein
Angela DiMarco as Rosie Finkelstein
Justin Howell as Mikey Amato
Cynthia Geary as Libby Wilson
Available via DVD, Blu-Ray, Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Instant Video
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