Review by Sean Boelman
Screenwriter Richard Curtis delivered one of the most unexpectedly iconic holiday comedies of all time in Love Actually, so cinephiles were obviously eager to see him return to the genre with Genie. Unfortunately, the film’s bland and generic nature prevents it from connecting as well as his past work.
Genie follows a workaholic man (Paapa Essiedu) who enlists the help of a genie (Melissa McCarthy) to win back his family heading into the holiday season. Curtis hopes to put a fresh spin on the tropes of the wish-fulfillment storyline and the holiday genre, but mixing these familiar beats is not enough to create a distinctive product.
It should come as no surprise to fans of Curtis’s work, but there is a maudlin sentimentality to Genie. While it’s hard not to crack a smile at the ending, even if it is overly saccharine, the rather generic storytelling does the movie no favors. Only in the third act does Curtis do anything interesting with these tropes, and by then, the first two-thirds have felt so bland that it’s hard to admire anything it does that is fresh.
In a development not new to Christmas movies whatsoever, the central themes of Genie are about the value of family and spending time together. In many ways, McCarthy’s genie is effectively the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future all wrapped up into one — but the issue with the film comes in that Essiedu is no Scrooge.
The balance Curtis is trying to strike with the protagonist is complex, and he is not entirely able to pull it off. On the one hand, if you make the character too neglectful, the audience would not possibly root for him. But here, where his main transgression is working too late on his daughter’s birthday, it’s hard to see an arc of substantial growth.
McCarthy is back to being typecast again after a few roles that actually took advantage of her talents. She’s back to doing slapstick and fish-out-of-water comedy, but at least she’s not getting body-shamed anymore. The surprising highlight of this movie is Essiedu, who brings an ineffable charm to his role. There is also a surprisingly rich supporting cast, including Alan Cumming, Marc Maron, and Luis Guzmán, but none of them feels well-used — almost as if some of their subplots ended up on the cutting room floor.
Visually, the film is shot like virtually every studio comedy this side of 2000. It’s oversaturated, with festive but generic production design. However, there are some scenes that make use of CGI to create the more whimsical, magical aspects of the storyline, and these look distractingly bad.
Genie isn’t a terrible movie, but it feels strangely uninspired. Even the generally warm touch of writer Richard Curtis cannot be felt in a film that lacks much in the way of a distinct identity or fresh approach to its storytelling. In other words, this is hardly a match to Curtis’s iconic holiday hit Love Actually.
Genie streams on Peacock beginning November 22.