It is never easy to remake any movie genre in your own creative image.
Stray too far from the formula that audiences know and love and you risk killing the goose that laid the golden box office egg; cleave too closely to it however, and you lose any spark of newness you could bring to the table, which paradoxically for people who want the same old same old, is seen as a backward step.
Happily, Single All the Way, the latest festive romantic comedy to come down the tinsel-strewn pike manages to dance nimbly between the two extremes, giving us what our rom-com loving hearts demand while injecting some buoyant freshness into the proceedings, the kind that will have you cheering and clapping like a wedding guest after too much champagne when the inevitable coming together of the protagonists finally takes place.
It helps, of course, that the film is set in quite possibly the most picture perfect postcode in New Hampshire.
Returning home to a town that has seemingly amended all its building codes to everything is ridiculously, heartwarmingly cute and which has specified thee entire output of several Christmas decoration factories must be diverted it to on an annual basis, Peter (Michael Urie) is a man at the crossroads.
A social media broker whose job it is to craft memorable Instagram campaigns for the gay masses – the opening scene shows a lot of hunky, muscular Santas in various states of red and white sexiness – he is clearly bored with where he is in life.
Change is in the offing, even if he is not actively seeking it, with the only welcome constants being his children’s book author/ gig economy tasker bestie and roommate Nick (Philemon Chambers) and his family back in New Hampshire who are as close as anyone could be.
While Peter has loved life in L.A. his hometown is calling, and specifically the idea of setting up a nursery in a sweet little store in main street, the kind of place where he can indulge his love of plants and get paid for it.
The only downside to this idyllic take on Future Peter is that he is, and remains single, a state of affairs that concerns his mother and father Carole (“Christmas Carole” for all of December, please and thank you) and Harold (Kathy Najimy and Barry Bostwick respectively) who see his happily married sisters – Lisa (Jennifer Robertson) and Ashleigh (Melanie Leishman) who have handsome, loving, sensitive husbands and great kids – and want the same for him.
So much in fact that while he is home for some quality family time with the fam’, Carole, who is renowned for her fabulously enthusiastic embrace of Christmas to the point where the house looks like something out of a gorgeous catalogue, and yet happily, not over the top unlivable too, sets her up with an instructor at his gym, the very lovely, Guy Candy-worthy James ( Luke Macfarlane) who is straight from rom-com central casting, the very epitome of Guy You Would Want to be Set Up With.
He’s perfect and yet … and yet, Peter, while he is enthralled with his mum’s choice of possible beau, can’t stop talking about Nick, even though when pressed, he’s adamant there’s nothing going on there beyond super-close best friend vibes.
What makes Single All the Way so much heartwarming, charming fun, and it is a delightful dose of festive romantic escapism that makes the world feel better in every way, is that while the screenplay by Chad Hodges sets out to tick every rom-com box with a candy cane pen, it doesn’t do so in a slavish way that robs the film of any sense of originality.
It helps, of course, that it is one of the ever-increasing number of films and TV shows out there that simply, and welcomingly depict LGBTQI (or “LGBTTI” as Carole endearingly keeps calling it) as every it as normal as its more high profile hetero equivalent.
If you’re LGBTQI or a friend, family member or ally of someone who is, this will hardly come as a news shock; but for too long, the gay presence in rom-coms especially was limited to over-camp bestie to the bride or groom, usually the former, who is the sage voice of relational wisdom and, bonus points here, the source of much comedic diversion.
That’s not necessarily a fatally bad thing but it does limit depiction of LGBTQI people to slapstick caricatures rather than fully-rounded, vibrant and well-loved human beings which is something Single All the Way embraces with a passion even as it serves up some fabulous gay icons such as Jennifer Coolidge as Carole’s flamboyant and temperamentally flouncy theatrically-inclined sister Sandy who stages the town’s annual Christmas play, this year entitled Jesus H. Christ which like its director pays no heed to convention of any kind.
Central to proceedings naturally is bringing Peter and Nick together, something that for all the customary stop-stop-go-stop-go ticks of the rom-com genre happens in all but inevitable style.
It’s hard not to root for these two sweet men who don’t play their queerness for laughs or trade on cheap affectations, but who simply set out portraying two besties who have yet to say “I’m in love with you” to each other.
We all know it’s coming – that’s one box that is most definitely ticked and eggnog-laced dedication – but that’s true of any rom-com; the reason why Single All the Way is such a joy to watch is because there’s already such a warm, rich and funny friendship between the two men who feel like they belong together from the word go.
Urie and Chambers play beautifully off each other, embodying a sense of deep, abiding friendship, the kind that doesn’t need to express it volubly but is happy with the small gestures, moments of critically important support and the affection that comes from knowing someone so intimately.
Their chemistry is such that their friendship feels real and lived-in, as does the relationships between each and every family member who, though they are rom-com impeccable in every way, all feel like they could indeed be family.
Sure, everything about the parental home and their lives feels gloriously lush and flawless but that is part of the charm of rom-coms which are supposed to offer up some delicious escapism, not simply of the romantic variety but of the general life kind which let’s face it could do with some glossy burnishing especially after two years of pandemic.
For all its welcome, festively-alive affectations, none of which you will resent for a second and which feel exactly how Christmas should be (at least the version that exists fantastically in our hearts and minds), Single All the Way feels sweetly grounded in the fact that here’s a bunch of people who really, deeply, truly care for each other.
Such is their love and care that they have no trouble showing that to each other, and to Peter and Nick, who are both told in some fairly intense but lovable family intervention-ing that they belong together, which makes all the confected loveliness of it all feel like it’s the stuff of a real family who give a damn about one another.
No caricatures, no bombastic silliness, no cheap laughs – dressed in Christmas trappings so vibrantly colourful it’s like Santa opened up his fantasy sack and just let all the very best festive parts spill out everywhere, Single All the Way is a love song to the season, to love in all its forms and to the idea that you can have what your heart desires, even when, and especially when, it’s sitting right under your nose just waiting for you to notice it.