It’s a Wonderful Life is one of those sacred relics in film. Something one daren’t disrespect, ignore, challenge etc.
So I intend to do all of that, here. Seriously. I loathe this movie. Here’s why.
- It’s DARK! As in soul destroying-ly so. If you think this a light hearted feel good romp? Then maybe watch it again.
- James Stewart is far more charming earlier in his earlier work (The Philadelphia Story) and more fascinating in his stuff with Hitchcock (Vertigo, Rear Window). This is middle of the road work by comparison and frankly, he deserved better. I never ‘got’ why people call James an everyman or compare him to the likes of Hugh Grant and Tom Hanks. He’s more an American Christopher Lee or Stewart Granger imho.
- What does our hero actually LEARN here? Yes, ok: there is the motif of realising life is not about money and status and that his very existence both enhanced and saved the lives of others. But so what? When the movie ends, there is every possibility that the entire situation could repeat itself the following year? Capitalism still reigns; the villains are not really punished enough and nobody really WINS anything?
- It would be fine, btw, to be purely gritty and realistic. A depression era commentary on losses sustained by the working man? But no. This is a fantasy movie in which an angel comes down to make everything better. Frank Capra crafted far better movies in his catalogue as a director, which manage to somehow warn against unfettered greed whilst also providing FUN.
- Everyone knows how much I love CITIZEN KANE and am a bit in love with CASABLANCA. Classic movies, both, full of technical innovation and romantic charm /theatrical tactics, whilst remaining accessible as engaging entertainment. IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is not in that pantheon to me. Sorry!
- Mawkish. Manipulative. Muddled. A desperately self indulgent whine of a movie. Beloved, perhaps, by the kind of person who sings ‘MY WAY‘ as a drunken apologia for being a loser. You do not become a nicer person by proclaiming love for IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. In fact, you might still be a bit of a knob.
- It’s been copied. To death. DALLAS inverted it for what was meant as the very final episode, where a demon visits JR to incite a suicide. Clever, right? Um, no. NEIGHBOURS has riffed on it. DOCTOR WHO had a ‘what if the Doctor died’ ep (TURN LEFT). THE FAMILY MAN (starring NICOLAS ‘BUYING CASTLES’ CAGE) replayed the idea of the life that might have been at Christmas. That’s just a small sample.
- JIM CARREY has frequently mentioned his love for James Stewart and often mirrors the actor in his ‘serious’ parts. Though equally his comedies sometimes do riff on IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. In BRUCE ALMIGHTY, Carrey literally ‘lassos the moon’.
- Not to forget, either the MANY, MANY, MANY MOVIES where they actually, lazily, integrate the actual film itself as short-hand for a Christmas change of heart via character watching IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.
- The movie tends to be attached to classic scene/greatest film lists and montages. Same way corporate hacks cobble together ‘greatest hits’ medleys for music. The very types who would see Christmas secularised nonetheless cling to this movie in all its specifically Christian message peddling. Double..no..triple standards, galore!
So: is IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE a ‘Christmas’ movie? Sure. It uses the season as a setting and has nominally Christian message. But is it beyond criticism? No. It’s perfectly ok to think that the film is anything but ‘wonderful’. By all means judge for yourself and (re)watch. Just don’t say I neglected to warned you off it. 😉