Vivid, beautifully produced and beguilingly perverse, Phillip Borsos' "One Magic Christmas" is a film that, whatever its immediate commercial prospects, promises to become a fixture in our holiday film library -- already, it ages well in the mind. It's a godsend for parents, a movie you can take the kids to, but which won't leave you gnashing at the armrest halfway through.
The movie is constructed as a kind of resonating chamber for bygone classics like "A Christmas Carol" and Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life." Ginnie Grainger (Mary Steenburgen), a small-town housewife, could fit her Christmas spirit in an egg cup, but she has her reasons -- in short, she's broke. Her husband Jack (Gary Basaraba) has been laid off, and what's worse, he wants to splurge away their savings to open a bicycle repair shop. At work, the supermarket manager hounds her to work Christmas Eve; at home, the kids (Elizabeth Harnois and Robbie Magwood) hound her with great expectations of under-tree bounty.
Ginnie needs someone to teach her the true meaning of Christmas, and Gideon (Harry Dean Stanton) is just the guy to do it. He's a Christmas angel, a 130-year-old cowboy who got promoted when he died saving a man from drowning. While Gideon lurks in the neighborhood streets, or perches in trees with his trusty harmonica, all sorts of horrors befall poor Ginnie. Loss makes her realize what she has, makes her realize that . . . well, that it's a wonderful life.
"One Magic Christmas" is a fable, but like the best fables, it's meticulously grounded in the everyday. Borsos doesn't blink from economic hardship, and while the script (by Thomas Meehan) is lean, Borsos finds enough crannies for the touches of gratuitous life, like a scene of Steenburgen singing in the shower, that give the movie the texture of reality. It's a reality enhanced by the Altmanesque way he and his regular cinematographer, Frank Tidy, have composed the frame -- there's always busyness in the foreground, and like life, the movie keeps your eye off center.
Much of "One Magic Christmas" is familiar, but familiarity, after all, is what we treasure in traditions like Christmas. And the movie has an intrinsic oddness, an edge of perversity, that never lets you get too cozy with it. Are Ginnie's tragedies really necessary? At times, it feels as if the poor woman is being blackmailed into believing in Christmas, as if Gideon, like a latter-day Prospero, has gone too far with his charade.
In the same way, Stanton knocks you off balance, too. With his hard face and blank-eyed convict's stare, Stanton is as unlikely an angel as you could find -- it's a remarkable piece of casting against type, cutting what's syrupy in the story. Lurking in the shadows in his long coat and slouch hat, he's less Christmas angel than Grim Reaper; and when this strange man approaches the Graingers' little blond girl in the street, you can hardly believe any good will come of this.
There are few roles less sympathetic than a hard woman, so when Steenburgen draws you in all the while you're gagging on her brittleness, it's no small triumph. But her hardness grows so clearly out of desperation you'd have to be a hanging judge to scold her for it. And she's careful to warm up the edges without losing the character's core -- after all, if Ginnie weren't unduly Scroogeish, there'd be nothing to redeem.
"One Magic Christmas" can get a bit thick, and often: there's the usual Cute Kid Stuff; the bike shop fantasy ("We're dreamers, I'd guess you'd say") brings the movie uncomfortably close to the "Go for it!" genre; and at times, as when the town council refuses to provide electricity for the town's Christmas tree, Borsos and Meehan don't know when to leave bad enough alone -- they bully you. But I can't remember the last time an actor lit up the screen like Basaraba, a low-key, blue-eyed, clean-jawed charmer. Now there's a Christmas angel, and when, at bedtime, he picks up his little girl by the ankles, swinging her gently to and fro while she grabs at the covers and peels them back, you see in the beauty of an instant what Christmas, and what movie making, are all about.
One Magic Christmas, opening today at area theaters, is rated G.