“Christmas at the Drive-In” is not a great movie

Screen capture from Christmas at the Drive-In, now showing on the Great American Family channel. You can see the drugstore-sized parking lot and the small, diamond McCarthy Drive-In sign.

Partly from fascination, partly so you won’t have to, I watched the entirety of “Christmas at the Drive-In” (CatD) over the weekend. The movie is competent and has a few good lines, but it’s not what I would call good.

At some point between the original synopsis (quoted in my previous post and on The Cinemaholic site) and the movie, the producers made a couple of changes. Instead of the Chesterfield Drive-In in Chesterfield NY, the focus of the movie is on the McCarthy Drive-In in Brenington, no state mentioned. Those names sound real, but from what I can tell, there has never been a drive-in theater named McCarthy nor a city named Brenington. (I hope that’s how to spell Brenington, since it was only mentioned and never displayed.)

I could go on a very long rant ticking off CatD’s many shortcomings, but that wouldn’t benefit anyone. The most relevant issue was the drive-in set itself, which was about the size of a Walgreens parking lot. In a fictional show, I know I should allow for a certain suspension of disbelief, but the viewing field held maybe two dozen cars. Since part of the plot hinged on the McCarthy returning to sustainable attendance, the clearly undersized lot was jarring.

The miniscule drive-in was one facet of CatD’s aggressively low-budget filming. Once that guiding principle got stuck in my head, I couldn’t unsee it. Every scene with mostly non-speaking extras, every substitute location, the odd patterns of faux snow, they all distracted me from the by-the-numbers plot.

There were good points too. The plucky lawyer-turned-teacher heroine gave a pivotal speech asserting that drive-in theaters were like Christmas. “Christmas is all about friends and neighbors coming together in a shared experience, creating memories that last a lifetime,” she said. “Christmas is a beautiful tradition, and so is the drive-in.” Later, she told a friend that she had researched some northern drive-ins that stayed open year-round and accurately described some of their strategies for dealing with the cold.

CatD required almost 15 minutes of heavy exposition to set up its absurd premise: The city orders the guy trying to sell the drive-in to work with the heroine trying to preserve it, to show that it can be profitable in December. But once the movie reached that point, it became a slow, straightforward, competent romance. Acting performances ranged from adequate to pretty good.

If you love made-for-cable Christmas romance movies, well, you’re not me. You might enjoy “Christmas at the Drive-In.” Personally, I’m still looking a movie with more drive-in in it.

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