Thomas Kinkade’s Christmas Cottage
Barely Enough Light

I honestly can’t think of a decent film inspired by a single painting.  I can, however, think of several outstanding films inspired by an artist’s body of work: Pollock, Shine, Amadeus, Ray, and Bird come easily to mind—as do others of good repute that I have not seen.  The best such biopics are those in which the level of the filmmaking artistry rises to the level of the art which inspired the film.

Thomas Kinkade’s Christmas Cottage is a film which, for better or worse, rises to the level of its inspiration—but no further.  The aims of both Kinkade’s paintings and Michael Campus’ film are simple, and are largely met; but if you are not predisposed to admire Kinkade’s work before seeing Christmas Cottage, the film is unlikely to change that.

Peter O'Toole as Glen in Thomas Kinkade's Christmas CottageNominally, the conflict at the center of the film is the young Kinkade’s Christmas homecoming on break from school at Berkeley.  He and his brother Pat discover that the bank is about to foreclose on their mother’s Placerville mortgage, and the family must come up with a way to save the titular “cottage.”  The story is populated with the predictable host of lovable nutjobs, like the free-spirited boozing father who walked out on Pat and Tom, the delusionally self-promoting mayor, the martini-swilling church organist, and the neighbors who feud over Christmas yard displays.

But the secondary conflict is where we find the heart of the movie. Kinkade’s neighbor and artistic mentor Glen suffers from a broken heart and severe arthritis, and is rapidly approaching death.  Kinkade has final lessons he must learn about art—and living—and Glen has a final great work of art to create.

The two storylines are interleaved and come together in a rather forced conclusion which aims to be both poignant and inspirational.  But in spite of memorable supporting performances from Peter O’Toole (as Glen) and Marcia Gay Harden (as Tom’s mom), and a fine job in the lead role by Jared Padalecki, the rest seems mere stuntcasting.  In the resultant stylistic mishmash—did you ever think you’d see a film featuring both O’Toole hyper-dramatics and Richard Moll / Chris Elliot mugging?—the potential of each storyline gets muddled.

Only in the DVD’s special features, in fact, do we find the real heart of Kinkade’s tale: the lifelong emotional burden shared by the three- and five-year-old brothers when abandoned by their father, and Thomas’ later (and rather single-minded) pursuit of idealized and stylized domestic perfection.

The film’s strength is in its serious examination of the meaning of art, and of the significance of artists.  Glen’s struggle in his final days is to leave a fitting legacy to the memory of his dead wife Nicole, and while he doles out plenty of fine advice to the young Thomas—“Art isn’t about the artist, it’s about life: life, beauty, love, and emotion”—he misses the fact that a portrait of mournful darkness does not become Nicole.  Instead, he finds meaning in a single candle brought into the darkness of his studio, discovering “new life in the dead of winter.”

Still, don’t look for great depth from Christmas Cottage.  In pandering to “what the public wants,” as Mayor Ernie puts it, Campus’ film sells short whatever seriousness lies behind Kinkade’s work in favor of religious platitudes and titillating entertainment.  In execution, the film—rather like O’Toole’s aging painter—totters between profundity and simple-mindedness.

We do finally find out what goes on inside of Kinkade’s loving-lit houses, but not much more; and martinis, tongue-tied pastors, cherry bombs, goofy Christmas pageants, Easy Rider pinup girls, and back-firing jalopies seem to have very little to do with Kinkade’s art or audience.  At the end of the day, the film feels nothing like a work of passion and everything like the work-for-hire at the center of this tale—and it’s easy to see why it was bounced from both the 2007 and 2008 holiday theatrical release schedules.

On a technical note, I should also point out that the DVD’s Dolby 5.1 audio track is extraordinarily muddled, and I had to switch to the alternate Dolby 2.0 track in the early going.  Like the film itself, the audio reaches too far and clarifies very little.

Thomas Kinkade’s Christmas Cottage is rated PG for “language, some suggestive content and smoking.”  Honestly, I think the “suggestive content” pushes this film more into the real of where PG-13 ought to be… though, of course, this is no Norbit!  I wouldn’t sit down to watch this film with younger children, much less leave them alone with it.

Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg viewed a promotional screener of Thomas Kinkade’s Christmas Cottage.