Review: Melissa McCarthy Grants Wishes for Holiday Harmony in Genie

File this one under: Christmas movie I didn’t know was a Christmas movie until I was deep into it. If I’m reading the credits correctly, Genie is directed by Sam Boyd (In A Relationship, creator of the acclaimed series Love Life) and written by Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Notting Hill), based on his 1991 teleplay Bernard and the Genie. The film is about an overworked New York resident named Bernard (Paapa Essiedu, I May Destroy You), who is in danger of losing his wife Julie (Denée Benton; The Gilded Age) and young daughter Eve (Jordyn Mcintosh) because his boss (Alan Cumming, who played Bernard in the original TV movie) forces him to work on holidays and other special days. That includes Eve’s birthday, which he misses for work on this particular occasion and still ends up getting fired for his trouble.

Just days before Christmas, Julie takes Eve to her parents in the suburbs, leaving a miserable Bernard to fend for himself. It’s around this time that he discovers a bejeweled box among a few antiques in his home, and when he attempts to polish it, a genie named Flora (Melissa McCarthy) pops out, granting him as many wishes as he likes (turns out, that whole three-wish thing is just in stories). Flora has been trapped in her prison for more than 2000 years after a misunderstanding with a sorcerer, so it takes her some time to understand the modern world, but everything about her sense of humor is pure McCarthy, and before long she’s shooting the breeze with everyone she meets, especially Bernard’s doorman (Marc Maron), whom she hits it off with a little too well.

Bernard is not a greedy or selfish person, so most of his wishes are made in the spirit of getting his family back together and occasionally saving his bacon, like when his family unexpectedly drops by for dinner. This isn’t a story in which the genie tricks its “master” with weird wish interpretations—pretty much what Bernard needs, Flora provides as expected. She’s also very good at anticipating needs, and before long the two become friends across the days leading up to Christmas. And while Bernard does manage to save the relationship with his daughter with a few presents and well orchestrated (by Flora) days together, his wife doesn’t seem as easy to convince to come home. Building a Christmas movie around a couple breaking up may not seem like an ideal blending of story threads, but screenwriter Curtis finds a fairly hokey and grossly sentimental way of making it work, sort of.

Genie has some amusing touches, like when Bernard wishes for the Mona Lisa to be hung in his home to replace a soccer jersey that his wife always hated, not realizing that the real Mona Lisa would be replaced in the Louvre by his beloved sports memorabilia, setting off an international hunt for the missing masterpiece. The incident brings a New York detective (Luis Guzman) into the mix, but Guzman seems to be struggling with this lightweight material. McCarthy is always best when she’s pushing her limits and giving us something different than her usual brand of brash but well-meaning humor, and that’s exactly what we get here, only less so. I tend to like Curtis’ work, so it was slightly stunning to find out at the end of Genie that he’d written it. The film’s ending manages to pull things together nicely, thanks to a bit of a cheat, and gives both Bernard and Flora the endings that both deserve, and one that doesn’t completely fall on its face is the greatest gift of all.

The film is now streaming on Peacock.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.