Anna Condo’s Merry Christmas plays like a meandering combination of two previous holiday-set films: Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale and Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan. Like the former, it’s driven by family conflicts that bubble up repeatedly during a holiday gathering. Like the latter, it’s an understated satire of Manhattan’s elite, one that places its contemporary members of the so-called “urban haute bourgeoisie” in a place they can’t fully understand: Pennsylvania. Unlike the movies it echoes, however, Merry Christmas crucially lacks a sense of narrative focus.
Condo—an Armenian actor turned director, making her feature debut here—takes an intentionally free-spirited approach to storytelling, allowing the actors to work without a script. They improvise every conversation, using character bibles as their guides, while Condo captures their interactions with cinéma vérité-style camera work. That approach results in some natural and believable performances, particularly from Alexandra Stewart as Maya Dawn, the politely snobby Manhattan pseudo-matriarch of the Merry Christmas bunch, and Antony Langdon (I’m Still Here) as the combative, heavy-drinking Ted. But the film also lacks a sense of structure and purpose, ambling from one tense conversation to the next without effectively making a impact.
Merry Christmas begins on Christmas Eve, as the members of an unconventionally extended family—a collection of nine blood relatives, half-siblings, trophy wives, and intergenerational friends—arrive at a rural Pennsylvania B&B to participate in a 1970s-era murder-mystery weekend. When the whodunnit game is in progress, everyone dresses the part, donning feather boas, candy-colored afro wigs, and platform shoes. (Condo also designed the costumes.) Whether the whodunnit proceedings are in progress or not, tensions percolate, leading to arguments about who may have killed the owner of the Disco Lounge as well as the viability of Ted’s plan to open a caviar bar. The line between what’s real and what’s pretend is blurred. But everyone’s suspicions are raised, for real, when a homeless stranger unexpectedly shows up at the inn, unable to speak and bearing a vague resemblance to Jesus. The nativity-story tie-in isn’t exactly subtle.
Merry Christmas takes place during the lowest point in the recent U.S. recession, and the film is at its best when it depicts the unbridgeable divide between one-percenters and everybody else. Maya Dawn and her clan are the kind of people who take road trips in limousines, who look down their noses at ambrosia salad, who fight intensely about caviar bars, for God’s sake. They aren’t bad people per se, certainly not all of them. But compared to Kay (Darlene “Kay” Elders), the Christian B&B proprietor who collects porcelain dolls and proudly serves ambrosia salad with marshmallow fluff as thick and white as Santa’s beard, they are from a different world, one they clearly deem superior to the country-cozy surroundings where they wind up. “Is this what you’d call traditional Pennsylvanian fare?” Ted asks after the Christmas turkey and trimmings are served. When the answer comes back yes, he quips, loudly enough for the chef to hear: “Note to self: Never live in Pennsylvania.” The camera is right there to capture his maddening, self-satisfied smirk.
It’s never exactly clear why Maya Dawn summons her clan to this particular B&B when, given this group’s financial resources, she probably could have chosen a more glamorous location to celebrate Christmas. That’s one of multiple details that never get fully addressed. At one point, a member of the group also mentions a family member who has recently gone missing, which suggests there could be an actual murder mystery lurking within the recent history of this privileged clan. But as the plot continues on its winding path, that bit of intrigue never comes up again.
With an actual, fully written screenplay in place, Merry Christmas could have been a modest but notable commentary on celebrating the holidays at a time when some have more than they need, while others know no freedom from want. Instead, it’s a warmly filmed, experimental holiday portrait of the wealthy in which the younger members of this “family” seem to be the only ones capable of expressing true generosity of spirit. As a final gesture from the homeless visitor implies, the sons and daughters in this group may be the north stars everyone else desperately needs to follow.