The well-meaning attempts at Christmas magic in Merry Good Enough are sadly buried under inexperienced directing, unfocused acting, and an ultimately hollow story.
There are a few different kinds of bad films. Films can be bad in a way that’s annoying, hilarious, boring, or even problematic. But it’s very rare that I come across a film where the bad qualities start off small, slowly wear me down into a total lack of immersion, and then keep going to a point where they circle back around and become ironically enjoyable. That’s what I took from the new Christmas film Merry Good Enough.
The premise seems perfectly solid. Dare I say, good enough to work: Lucy (Raye Levine) and her mother Carol (Susan Gallagher) are in the midst of a tense squabble – I’m using that phrase loosely, but we’ll get to that – a couple of days before Christmas. The next morning, Carol disappears without a trace, leaving the rest of her family, including Lucy’s siblings Tim (Daniel Desmarais) and Cynthia (Comfort Clinton), as well as their divorced father (Joel Murray) to celebrate the holiday without her while very, very casually looking for her.
I believe that first-time directors Caroline Keene and Dan Kennedy had their hearts in Merry Good Enough and truly wanted to make something special out of a love for the holiday, and I would be very happy to sit here and appreciate that they came even close to succeeding. But it honestly pains me to say that Merry Good Enough instead feels like a film made by amateur YouTubers with awkwardness seeping through almost every frame.
Everyone’s acting feels like half of a proper performance, in that they always carry a little authenticity but seem unable to commit to whatever emotion they’re supposed to be conveying. Everyone talks as though they were given their lines one minute before rolling and haven’t worked out how to make them sound natural. Granted, they’re not helped by the equally unpolished dialogue they’re given, which is filled with regular non sequiturs, pauses more awkward than a video game award show, speeches that are rarely as profound as they seem to think, and what feel like first-draft attempts at humor.
Conversations that already often filled with placeholder dialogue abruptly shift to another topic with the same fluid tact in which Tommy Wiseau brings up one’s sex life. I love one moment where two characters are having a heart-to-heart talk about their pasts, one of them leaves, and then the other itches his beard while saying he needs to shave it right before the scene cuts. My favorite character is this really bizarre cop the family goes to for a missing persons report, whose creepy smiling makes it look like she’s enjoying this family’s troubles. There are so many little moments like that, and this review would be a full essay if I went through and listed them all (as tempting as that is).
This especially hurts when a character’s behavior is supposed to come across as strange, like the father and his aloof reactions to his ex-wife’s disappearance. Because everyone else feels off, it’s harder to tell whether he’s meant to be the irrational one or he’s just another victim of the directing. The instigating argument between Lucy and Carol, though pretty decently written, doesn’t have a level of conviction or bitterness that makes me believe Carol would break down and leave over it. It’s later stated that this is just the boiling over of tension that’s been stewing for a while, but I never would have picked up on that from how they act around each other.
The sense of unpreparedness sadly doesn’t stop with the actors, as the directing and editing are equally choppy. There are so many unnecessary close-ups during what should be the most casual of conversations, and they don’t even visually line up properly with the reverse shots of other people in the room. My eyes honestly had a hard time adjusting once in a while during these scenes. The camera is constantly altering between still, steady shots and a handheld, almost found-footage style, but not in a way that gels with what’s being shown.
Even the exposure looks unfinished; one scene in a diner features an aggressive glare from the sun in half the shots. Sometimes the camera lingers on characters too long and it looks like the actors are just standing there waiting for the word, “Cut,” and other times it cuts away when a longer wide shot would sell the drama or humor better. Sometimes an establishing shot is just flat-out missing, and occasionally there’s a choice that simply doesn’t work, like cutting the frames and blurring the motion as if to make us feel like we’re in a fever dream … when it’s just the family innocently dancing. Unless they took drugs to make it a “Green” Christmas, I don’t get what that adds.
I’m not even mentioning the few subplots or developments that are either not built up or end up going nowhere after one scene. Carol apparently has a secret friend who’s not a boyfriend or friend with benefits (which makes me question why there was ever any secrecy), who shows up briefly and then never returns. Cynthia makes a discovery that feels like a last-minute addition to the script, and something happens in the ending that impacts nothing. Even Lucy’s epiphany of where her mom is comes almost out of nowhere.
I think I see what the intent behind a lot of these choices was. Merry Good Enough is clearly trying to capture a sense of raw, unfiltered authenticity that strips away the cinematic flourishes you’d get in a lot of other movies. You’re probably meant to feel a fly on the wall, watching real conversations that feel as on-the-spot as actual interactions often do. But the reason this works in other films is that there’s still impressive craft on display that lets you admire how everything came together, and a sense that every shot, no matter how spontaneous, was thought out.
Here, the only result is a clear giveaway that this was directed by people who had never made a feature film before. Which I can sympathize with, no doubt, but that doesn’t change the film’s quality. I also want to make it clear that I have no idea what was really going on when the film was being made. I don’t know if the production was troubled, if it went 100% according to plan, or what the intentions behind any choices were. All I can do is go off of the impressions the film made on me.
With all that being said, you may be surprised when I say that I’m still grateful to have seen this film, for two reasons. One is that I, again, believe it was made with love and a drive to tell a personal story, and I’m always on board for that. The other is that, when I realized the film was absolutely not working at all, the off-putting choices and performances suddenly went from head-scratching to humorous. The best thing I could do while watching was view Merry Good Enough as a so-bad-it’s-good film. Not one of the funniest of its kind, but one that gradually worked its weird “magic” and lightly poked me so many times that I had to give in and chuckle at the strangeness. It’s a rare slow burn to enjoyably bad territory, but it gets there.
But I know that’s not what the film, nor anyone who worked on it, wanted it to be. And for all I know, those who see Merry Good Enough may actually be won over by it, leaving me looking like the odd Scrooge out. There are a few solid lines that embody the deeper holiday introspection the film is going for, and I see little nuggets of potential for these directors to get better in future projects. But from my own perspective, looking at what was put together, Merry Good Enough is a complete misfire that comes nowhere close to being good enough.
Merry Good Enough will be available to watch on digital and on demand from December 19, 2023.