Although he’s still best known for being John Travolta’s brother, for a while in the ’90s and ’00s Joey Travolta carved out a surprisingly robust career as a director of direct-to-video oddities, from kids’ movies starring Ernest Borgnine and a giant turtle or Pat Morita and aliens, to erotic thrillers featuring softcore icons Shannon Tweed and Joan Severance. Since then, he’s continued to work as an actor and producer, and given the current state of his brother’s career, Travolta is really only a few notches below his far more famous sibling at this point. That’s no excuse for the ineptitude of Travolta’s latest directorial effort (his first feature since 2006), the treacly Christmas drama Carol of the Bells, but it does show the threads between the brothers’ careers slowly converging. A Joey Travolta-directed kids’ monster movie starring John Travolta might not be that far off.
In the meantime, the biggest star in Carol of the Bells is Breaking Bad’s RJ Mitte, who plays Scott Johnson, the owner of an auto body shop and this Christmas movie’s requisite anti-Christmas character . To be fair, Scott has a pretty good reason for avoiding Christmas: On his fifth birthday (which happened to fall on Christmas Eve), Scott was in a car accident that killed his adoptive parents and left him with unspecified injuries. He spent the rest of his childhood dealing with the aftermath of the accident while being shuttled through various foster homes, although now he seems mostly well-adjusted, with his own business, a supportive wife, and a preternaturally annoying son approaching his own fifth birthday.
That upcoming birthday for little Jeremy (Elijah Maximus), as well as the impending arrival of his second child, has Scott feeling reflective. As the story begins, he’s been working with a private investigator to track down his birth mother. But when Scott finally gets the information about Carol (Andrea Fay Friedman), he decides not to reach out to her, once he discovers that Carol has Down syndrome and lives in a group home. Lessons about acceptance and tolerance (and the meaning of Christmas) are on the way, but not before a lot of clumsy, stilted drama, shot with the flat, dull look of someone’s home movies.
Scott’s wife Karen (Yuly Mireles) decides to visit Carol on her own, and the two form a friendship–over the objections of Carol’s mother Helen (Donna Mills), who also happens to own the facility where Carol lives. The dramatic tension is all relatively minor, though, and it doesn’t take much for Helen to come around on the importance of family or for Scott to give in and embrace Christmas and the mother he had thought abandoned him. Travolta and screenwriter J.C. Peterson offer a seemingly well-intentioned showcase for various actors with disabilities, even if the roles those actors play are one-dimensional and occasionally condescending. (At one point Scott randomly encounters a little girl with Down syndrome and her adoptive mother, who tells Scott that she and her husband decided to adopt a child that no one else wanted.)
Travolta is aiming for Hallmark-style heartwarming sentiment, but the production values make Hallmark movies look like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The opening car crash recalls a Toonces the Driving Cat sketch, and later Scott and Jeremy attend a hockey game that clearly takes place at Stock Footage Arena. The writing is belabored and didactic even in the smallest details (a scene of Carol preparing to make a phone call seems to last for longer than the movie’s entire running time). Aside from the extraordinarily grating Maximus, the performances are mostly fine, and veteran TV-movie and direct-to-video players like Mills, Donna Pescow, and Lee Purcell know how to get through even the hokiest material. Mitte overplays Scott’s anguish at times, but with a better script, he could still be a decent leading man. Possible next step: working with the other Travolta.
“Carol of the Bells” is out now on VOD.