I have found a guilty pleasure… and it feels a little guilty because it’s sometimes too sappy for words… and not always a real pleasure. And yet, I am drawn to it like a moth to a flame – this moth keeps on hoping to find a little gem instead of a flame.
I may have said before that I am a real sucker for a good romance movie. The power of true love is very powerful to me! It’s hard to get a romance movie right and a romantic comedy in particular, I find. Romantic movies can be too sappy, too dramatic (I’m sorry, but Nicholas Sparks and I are not a great fit), too frothy, too predictable. The characters need to be true and well-rounded, the conflict needs to be real, there needs to be a good arc for the development and growth of the characters, even in a fairytale kind of movie. For romantic comedies there needs to be this extra spark of wit and feeling and dialogue that is a tough mix to crack. But when it’s well done, when the mix works, my heart soars (or aches) and I keep on going back to those movies to get my fixes in times of need! Sometimes such a fix doesn’t need to last long at all…
In recent years it feels like there’s been a drought – there are occasional good romantic movies and there are even fewer good romcoms. Maybe I loved the latest Bridget Jones because, despite it being an old mix made new again, it was well done! And yeah, it had Colin Firth… (by the way, my 12 year old daughter saw it and liked the more loose Patrick Dempsey better… go figure…).
In recent times, mostly due to recent world events but also due to my frustrating job situation (volunteer work is fun but I need a good, paying job), I have come to a place where I am in dire need of feel-good pick me up romantic movies. As it’s slim pickings now on that front, I decided to turn to, yes, the Hallmark Channel! I have been binge-watching tons of romantic Hallmark movies in recent weeks/months. I have counted them: I have seen 48(!!) of them. They are easy to watch, don’t always need your undivided attention, are all 1 hour and 23 minutes long and aim to give you a fuzzy feeling.
The Hallmark formula
The Hallmark love stories have a pretty consistent formula: girl meets boy (PLUS) girl has a boyfriend/fiancé/some guy who’s not good enough sniffing around (PLUS) the attraction between girl and boy is pretty much instant even though they don’t always realize it themselves (PLUS) there are difficulties getting together (PLUS) at around 1 hour in, there may be a kiss or at least a moment when all seems to be heading in the right direction for our right girl-boy couple (PLUS) then all hell breaks loose and they seem lost to each other forever (PLUS) girl breaks up with boyfriend/fiancé/sniffing guy when she realizes what she wants (PLUS) right in the last 2-4 minutes the resolution happens with a kiss (EQUALS) they live happily ever after!
Hallmark movie themes
There are also some common themes in many of the movies. For instance:
- Small town country life is wholesome and good, the big city is bad with no morals. OK, this is not always the case but it is very often so. With the recent disastrous US election and pretty much all of rural US voting for Trump, this dynamic seems more telling to me than ever before!
- Your first love is often your true love – girl returns to small town she grew up in and falls in love with high school boyfriend all over again.
- Women seem confused and don’t know who they are, meeting ‘the man’ helps them find out who they are and what they really want.
- Christmas love stories are HUGE and you can only be a good person if you believe in the magic of Christmas.
- Children are the way to a woman’s heart – if the guy has children or is good with children, the woman melts (metaphorically speaking). Actually, that goes for animals too.
- To become a princess and marry a prince really is a fairytale come true (and princes tend to be kind but also a little ‘stiff’). I did see one role reversal movie when the regular guy falls in love with a princess on the run. Sadly, it didn’t even come close to Roman Holiday magic… I didn’t much care for the princess…
- No one ever has sex, not even implied!
- Hallmark loves certain actors and reuses them a lot. There are some popular secondary role actors that pop up in different movies but some leads are recurring as well. And some of them aren’t half bad…
- The girl and boy are always caucasian and if there is someone of a different ethnicity then it’s in the best friend / nice colleague supporting role. The most ‘ethnic’ (don’t really like that word, I’m ‘ethnic’ too even if I am blonde and blue-green eyed) lead actress I have seen so far is Meghan Markle, who has in real life apparently recently been officially acknowledged as British Prince Harry’s girlfriend! Gosh, Hallmark will have a field day with that one, should that ever end in a wedding…
- Last but not least Hallmark movie theme: the US is full of plastic people, especially over a certain age (most noticeably some mothers in these movies) and some of the leads are plastic too.
I’m sure there are more themes (feel free to add on in the comments!) but these are the big ones I can come up with for now.
But why watch these movies?
Yes, I know the obvious question arising: why do I watch these movies if they are so predictable and the themes are so common and the clichés are so big? I guess it’s the feel-good thing that I am always looking for and the certainty that no matter how tough it gets, everything will be well in the end. These stories are easy to digest and easy digestion is just necessary sometimes. Some of these movies aren’t too bad and can give you that feel-good fix, even though they are almost instantly forgotten once the movie ends. Some are not so great and some are really quite awful – they are so cliché or the leads are awkward / act badly / seem plastic that it becomes something like watching a train wreck: you are fascinated and horrified but just can’t look away! However, even the train wrecks, some of which are downright annoying, can still amuse me as I pick them apart while I watch them. I still repeatedly find myself coming back to these movies because I find myself always, always, hoping for a little gem… and surprisingly, there are a few! Finding one makes me keep on watching these movies in the hopes of finding another one…
Hallmark movies research results
I have a list of all the movies I have seen because otherwise I get confused which ones I have seen and which ones I haven’t (titles are so generic, it gets confusing when you just see a title, especially of an unmemorable movie). In my purely subjective Hallmark research, I have come to the following conclusions:
- Of the 48 movies I saw, 32 are pretty much instantly forgettable. Some are more enjoyable than others, but forgettable.
- Sometimes it was the story that annoyed me and often the leads just could not appeal to me: I’d like the girl and not the boy or I’d like the boy but not the girl or I’d like neither! One movie, for instance, had a bookstore owner and while there was a certain charm she didn’t look like she had ever read a serious book in her life. Or the princess in the aforementioned movie about a regular guy falling in love with a European princess – there was nothing European about her, she just didn’t fit. Or there was a girl and a guy planning the wedding of their best friends and that guy… it was refreshing that he wasn’t so smooth but there was something about him that annoyed me to no end (and he’s a recurring Hallmark actor to boot!). Some of the guys looked sooooo smooth, it was off-putting to me. Actually some of the girls were too smooth as well.
- 7 movies went on the ‘ok’ pile – not forgettable but not quite there yet either. Something would just annoy me a little too much in the story or in the acting for me to absolutely declare it great (for a Hallmark movie).
- That leaves me with 9 movies I actually enjoyed!
- In those 9 movies there were 3 male actors that really ‘spoke’ to me (Eric Johnson, Jonathan Scarfe and Andrew Walker) and 3 female leads I really liked (Katie LeClerc, Arielle Kebbel and Ashley Williams)!
The 9 Hallmark movie gems
My two favourite movies are Cloudy With a Chance of Love (although strictly speaking, that is apparently a Pixl movie – and it was 4 minutes longer than the standard Hallmark one) and Love On the Air.
Cloudy With a Chance of Love is about an academic in meteorology in San Diego who must decide between her new job as a popular weather girl or her pursuit of a PhD fellowship. She must also figure out whether her boss is interested in her or is he just using her as a ticket to get promoted to a bigger job in New York?
What I loved about the movie was that the story was good and I especially loved the lead actress, Katie LeClerc. She seemed just as smart as the script had made her, she was quirky and alive and cute and when the inevitable ‘make over’ came, she in the end was able to make it work for herself in a way that was true to herself. There was no distracting lurking first boyfriend/fiancé and in the end, after a real character arc, Deb (Katie LeClerc) was able to choose what was truly closest to her heart, regardless of whether the guy would be there or not. Her boss was more a distraction than the solution to all her dreams…and yet, as in all Hallmark movies, things do end well for our lovely couple. The lead actor (Michael Rady) I knew from a stint on The Mentalist and he did really well here too. I loved that he fell in love with Deb for who she was before anyone else did (other than her bestie and her boss at the university). Yes, I really really liked this one!
My other favourite was Love on the Air. Again, there were strong leads in this one. It’s about two competing radio personalities in Chicago who annoy each other but then find common ground when they have to work together.
Yes, some of the clichés are present: there’s an ex-fiancé who’s still in the picture, there’s the black friend/co-worker thing, there’s the guy helping the girl figure out what she wants but there is also so much more. There is very good banter between these two, on and off air, about their different approaches to love and life, they both are closed off in their own ways and they both thaw, and there’s very good chemistry between the two leads, Alison Sweeney and Jonathan Scarfe. To me, especially Jonathan Scarfe really stood out. He tries to stick to a slick, happy-go-lucky exterior but yet finds himself affected – and acts that beautifully. And he screen-kisses well too.
Watching Jonathan Scarfe lead me to another Hallmark movie that I liked called Angel of Christmas (honestly, who makes up these titles?). From IMDB: “When newspaper staffer Susan sets out to write an article about her family’s much-storied heirloom Christmas angel, it leads her to accidentally meet Brady, a cute, upbeat artist who whisks the resistant Susan into a holiday-time friendship–and maybe more.” There’s also a mystery involved with the history of the Christmas angel.
This is one of the most cliché movies of the Hallmark movies that I liked. It’s about Christmas magic and there’s the sniffing potential love interest that contrasts with the guy who is really the true love. What really makes this movie for me, however, is Jonathan Scarfe. There is an almost Simon Baker-ish kind of charm to him and his interest in the lead character played by Jennifer Finnigan (who was alright) is immediately apparent. He does very well in the long-looks department and leaning into personal space and the kissing and all that. Yeah, this one was full of clichés but it was nonetheless a fun, if unlikely, escape ‘magic’ story.
Another one I really liked was one that fed into all the clichés of country being better than the city and the title, Valentine Ever After, is awful too, but what really made this one stand out was the male lead, Eric Johnson! The movie is about two city girls who go to Wyoming, get stranded at a ‘dude ranch’, get involved in a bar brawl and must stay to do community service. The lead actress (a favourite Hallmark actress called Autumn Reeser, quite decent but not my favourite) finds her true calling and her true love (and must also figure out what to do with the fiancé she had already acquired).
Eric Johnson plays the true love handsome cowboy and he does it so brilliantly that for me he makes all the clichés alright. He is the silent type with a no-nonsense attitude and when his face breaks into a smile it just melts me every time (and there are loads of forehead crinkles and dimples too!). The man can act with just his eyes and facial expressions and his body language and was such a joy to watch! He’s the only one from all the Hallmark movies that I actually bothered to screencap, have a look-see…
Eric Johnson is a recurring Hallmark actor, although this last Valentine movie was his meatiest role yet. Another one he made a few years back was called Fir Crazy and while the movie was alright (the lead actress was so-so to me), I really did like him in the role of a very nice and charming school teacher (this is one of the movies from my ‘ok’ pile).
Aww! Look at him look at her!
Apparently Eric Johnson also played Flash Gordon in a tv series that lasted one season (saw parts of it – I understand why it wasn’t renewed despite Eric Johnson being charming in it) and he now plays in a HBO series called The Knick about an early 1900s New York City hospital, which I plan on watching in time. Apparently he plays a bit of a bigotted doctor in that one. Not sure I can take bigots on right now, but I will in time as I am very curious to see how he does (apparently that series has been renewed, it’s with Clive Owen in the lead). Yes, I really like Eric Johnson, I’ll be watching out for him!
Another actor I discovered who does really well in these movies is Andrew Walker. He made a movie called Bridal Wave (also not strictly Hallmark, I think, as it too is a little longer than a 1hr,23min Hallmark movie). A woman (Arielle Kebbel who also was briefly in Gilmore Girls playing the small role of Dean‘s wife) planning for her wedding at a resort meets a charming local (Andrew Walker) right before the ceremony and has to choose between the man who can care for her financially or the man who truly understands her.
I’m not too fond of the storyline that this girl is almost marrying someone not right for her and then at the last minute decides not to. However, there is so much chemistry between Andrew Walker and Arielle Kebbel, it almost jumped off the screen! They had done an earlier Hallmark movie together, which didn’t do it for me storywise, but they were magic together then as well. These two just work together well and not only Walker is good, so is Kebbel. I first judged her as too pretty and airy but she is good! She acts emotion very well and Walker does intensity very well.
I wondered if it was just the pairing of those two that was good, but Walker did another movie called Dashing through the Snow and while the lead actress in that was fine and quirky and quite charming, I thought he really nailed it with the portrayal of his undercover agent character whose suspicious heart starts to thaw. The movie is a road movie about a young woman (Meghan Ory) who is stranded at an airport at Christmastime, and accepts a ride from a somewhat mysterious stranger (Andrew Walker) who just rented the last car in town.
The plot that involves agents is a bit flimsy but these two together on the road work very well. Yes, many clichés here as well but they aren’t too bad. One of my favourite lines in the movie is when the Ashley (Meghan Ory) character tests her theory that the only truly good people are people who believe in Santa. She asks a tough biker kinda guy, who just rescued puppies and is clearly a very good man, whether he believes in Santa and the biker guy shortly remarks “No, I’m Jewish”. Ha! There goes her theory! I love that. What I especially love, however, is Andrew Walker’s intensity and he certainly commits himself to his onscreen kisses (as much as Hallmark allows).
Letter Never Sent is another Pixl movie, not shown on Hallmark (I don’t think). I wasn’t sure it would be any good when I read what it was about: Emboldened by the last remaining days of high school, senior Henry (Callard Harris) writes a love letter to his neighbor, Claire (Haley Webb). But, when he runs into her at school joking and laughing with her then boyfriend, he chickens out and never tells her how he feels. Fast forward ten years, Henry returns home to celebrate his mom’s fiftieth birthday. When Claire volunteers to help Henry plan his mother’s party, all his old feelings resurface. Will Henry find the courage to tell Claire how he feels? Will he finally give her the letter he wrote all those years ago? Or, will he chicken out again?
It sounded like a bit of a dud to me on paper but it really wasn’t! That was all down to the two leads who did a great job together (despite yet again a fiancé storyline), had good chemistry together and felt very real. Especially Callard Harris had this vulnerability to him which I thought he acted really well.
There is also Love on a Limb about a woman (Ashley Williams) who protests against an old oak tree in her town being felled and chains herself to it. She clashes with the man who comes to chop the tree down (Trevor Donovan) but slowly gets to know him better…
The lead guy was just too… hunky and flat (characterwise) for me, I didn’t care for him so much, but the Ashley Williams character I liked. She had real spunk and sparkle and I loved the passion she had for this cause and all other causes she championed. I have also seen her in another Hallmark movie where she had the same spunk although I didn’t care that much for the movie. I could imagine people finding her sparkle a bit much but I really liked it. The sparkle was balanced with some sadness and introspection too, which the actress handled nicely. Also, somehow, in a small way, she reminds me a bit of my good friend Amy, which earns her a TON of brownie points.
And finally there was Remember Sunday, which I think is also not technically a Hallmark movie as it’s 10 minutes longer than the standard. It’s a 50 First Dates kind of movie about a man (Zachary Levi) suffering from short-term memory loss who falls in love with the same waitress (Alexis Bledel) every day.
Alexis Bledel is most famous for playing Rory Gilmore in the Gilmore Girls but does a good job here too. Actually, it was seeing her in this movie that sparked me re-watching a lot of the Gilmore Girls again recently. In any case, this is a bit of a heart-wrencher with no miraculous memory recovery at the end but still a lovely story. And Alexis Bledel’s big blue eyes are just mesmerizing…
Some honourable mentions
There are some movies that went to the ‘ok pile’ for me, I already mentioned one (Fir Crazy) above. Those ‘ok’ movies are the ones that are quite nice but for me are not quite as good as the ones I have already mentioned.
- There is one about writers falling in love (A Novel Romance) but the leads didn’t quite do it for me and the ending was a little silly.
- The Dater’s Handbook has Prince Harry’s girlfriend Meghan Markle in it. She’s lovely and quirky and I really got why she fell in love with the guy. I just found the premise a little off. But then again, it did have Jonathan Scarfe in it who I mentioned above – good again but not quite as likeable this time around.
- Tulips in the Spring was quite standard fare but the lead guy was really cute to look at! And apparently tulips do catch my attention (must be a Dutch thing) even though I am by far not as fascinated with them as people outside my country seem to be.
- Hitched for the Holidays was fun, but I can’t quite remember why it missed the top sparkle for me. I think it’s the lead actor, not my fave.
- The Irresistible Blueberry Farm has the aforementioned Alison Sweeney from the radio movie in it and some mystery and sparkle. The annoying bit for me was the fiancé bit with a recurring Hallmark actor I don’t like so much.
- And The Nine Lives of Christmas was about two people falling in love over cats! I liked the lead actress but, while there was some spark between the leads, it never turned into a real flame for me. But did I mention the cats in it? There were cats who had some real screen time! Cats! Adorable!
Despite clichés there are some very enjoyable Hallmark movies out there. Sure, most of them are forgettable but there are a few little gems in-between. This “research” is still ongoing, I have even more Hallmark movies on my still-to-watch list! So, who knows what else I might unearth?
On a final note: this may have been my longest blog post ever and it’s very true to my escapist nature to boot. 🙂 If you have actually managed to read it all: BRAVO to you! And if you have any Hallmark observations to add, please feel free to do so in the comments.