Director Mary Lambert delivers yuletide warmth and heartfelt cheer to Netflix subscribers with “Best. Christmas. Ever!” The story centered on two women rediscovering their strength and sparkle by mending their fractured friendship finds the correct balance of cynical and saccharine without upsetting the scale. The streamer’s practically patented brand of holiday hijinks is amped up to a ridiculous degree as the hyperbolic title would suggest. Even so, its absurdist lunacy acts as a Trojan Horse containing genuinely meaningful sentiments on forgiveness, happiness and bittersweet sorrows — universalities people tend to reflect on as their year comes to a close.
Charlotte Sanders (Heather Graham) dreads Christmastime because it means her former college bestie Jackie Jennings’ (Brandy Norwood) annual newsletter is on its way. It’s filled with obnoxious lingo and humblebrags about the Jennings family’s successes, and Charlotte can’t help but feel inferior, unfavorably comparing it to her own harried life as a wife, mother and struggling inventor. For years, she’s deferred her dreams of a better home and career, caught in an unsatisfying job as a product engineer. She values practicality over leaps of faith to ensure her optimist husband Rob (Jason Biggs) and their young progeny, Grant (Wyatt Hunt) and Dora (Abby Villasmil), can live comfortably — or as best they can in a cramped Arizonan apartment. But the worrywart is now overdue for yet another detour, physically and metaphorically.
Misinterpreting his mother’s sarcasm, sneaky Grant puts Jackie’s address instead of his aunt’s address into the GPS before leaving for their family road trip. Charlotte doesn’t think to check this crucial detail, spending hours crossing multiple state lines, not realizing she’s headed straight to Jackie’s front doorstep in the picturesque, snow-covered town of Hadley Falls (Utah steps in as the filming location). Charlotte’s even more taken aback when Jackie welcomes them into her twinkle-light covered manse and decked halls. Jackie’s hottie hubby Valentino (Matt Cedeño) and 10-year-old prodigy Beatrix (Madison Skye Validum) are equally as impressive, as is their oldest Daniel, whom Charlotte only hears about through his accomplishments. Charlotte winds up hoisted by her own petard when her investigation into her former friend results in havoc rather than healing.
Lambert and screenwriters Todd Calgi Gallicano and Charles Shyer turn in a multi-faceted tale that blessedly never devolves into a one-dimensional story about two competitive, smart women sniping at each other while their clueless families watch from the sidelines. Their portrayal of a strained female friendship is full of complexities, channeling heartrending messages about compassion and selflessness while simultaneously being light-hearted and slap-happy. Graham and Norwood handle the comedic and dramatic tonal fluctuations with grace and nuance, nimbly landing both punchlines and emotional gut-punches.
The filmmakers adeptly weave together themes of belief, from Charlotte’s transformative arc dealing with her skepticism to the kids’ quest to discover if Santa is real. Rob pointing out early on that Charlotte’s unhealthy fixation is hurtful leaves enough time for the character to inevitably develop this realization on her own and demonstrate change. Though Jackie is hiding a big secret (one that’s glaringly obvious to the audience) until the third act, she’s allotted some space to mend her ways for everyone’s betterment.
Occasionally, when the picture breaks free from servicing its thematic aspects, it ascends to much welcomed camp that gets nuttier than a fruitcake. Charlotte breaks the fourth wall solely at the start of our journey and then never again. The needle drop of “Oh Holy Night” during Valentino’s introduction gloriously underscores the female gaze as the camera pans over his muscular figure bathed in morning sunlight. An omission by Rob about his part in Jackie’s newsletter fiasco is treated with the same weight as if adultery occurred — yet the betrayal, though still a reckoning for Charlotte, isn’t nearly as big of a marriage killer.
Grant and Beatrix’s attempts to disprove Santa’s existence take admirably big swings, leading to a funny “Elf”-esque sequence where Grant unmasks Santa in front of an entire town. If this evokes questions from little ones watching at home, parents are on their own. Later on, the climatic sequence involving a solar-charged hot air balloon, its rickety ladder, a flimsy outdoor sleigh decoration and Charlotte — a college graduate with an engineering degree – serves to test the audience’s suspension of disbelief. It’s indeed laughable, but by then we’re already besotted with the movie’s abject lunacy.
Perhaps the greatest gift of all is that “Best. Christmas. Ever!” not only ties into the Netflix Holiday Cinematic Universe (as characters are seen watching “Falling for Christmas” and “The Princess Switch 3” on TV), but also enhances it by providing a solid new entry filled with charm and sweetness. With Norwood singing a few Christmas standards and Graham performing rom-com-inspired pratfalls, the film provides a hearty dose of festive joy to those who click play.