Spirited, the Apple TV+ musical comedy remake of A Christmas Carol, is a depressingly literal, overly sarcastic and nightmarishly unfunny look at the lives of the people who work from beyond the grave to make Christmas cheer.
In the film, which hits the streaming service today, Will Ferrell plays a spirit who’s lost his mojo when he meets a man who’s more persuasive than he is. The laughs never start and the songs never stop in this gaudy waste of money and talent.
The Ghost of Christmas Present (Ferrell) is clinging to his job bringing mean people to the light of goodness. He works with the Ghost of Christmas Past (Sunita Mani) and the Ghost of Christmas Future (Tracy Morgan), to say nothing of hundreds of office drones who go unnamed.
In this world, ghosts are just clock-punchers who work with a vast network of spirits tasked with making the world a better place. While he likes his job well enough, Present’s terrified of being reincarnated and given another chance at life. (That’s how the afterlife works in Spirited.) Also, the ghosts sing and dance all the time. It’s horrifying.
They’re planning their next haunt when they stumble onto a goldmine: Clint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds), a song-and-dance PR firm executive who specializes in revitalizing flagging businesses. They catch Clint singing a song to a Christmas tree distributor that says, in essence, that the beleaguered biz must turn rival companies into the enemy in the minds of consumers — clearly only something an absolute genius could tell them.
Present is smitten (so is Past, but for different reasons), seeing in this man the white whale of his career — the worst man in the world. This is a stretch, but whatever. We’ve got so much more table-setting to do.
The ghost of Jacob Marley (Patrick Page) tells Present that Clint has been labeled an “unredeemable.” He’s the kind of guy who can’t have his mind changed like ordinary people, which just makes Present want to do it even more. But what happens when someone who hinges everything on his ability to make people better meets a man who lives to make people worse?
This is the moment we’ve waited for all year?
After Spike Jonze directed the Charlie Kaufman script for Being John Malkovich, and then Michel Gondry directed Kaufman’s script for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (both inspired by Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, BTW), a new kind of subgenre of comedy was coined.
In this Kaufman-lite world, pieces of the human condition and the foundational myths and machinery of life were dissected with cockeyed humor. Most of these films have been forgotten, because beating a writer like Kaufman at his own game was never in the cards. Kaufman’s ideas later evolved (in frequently trying, continuously antisocial, always ambitious new directions), while everyone else sat around trying to capitalize on his acerbic, deconstructionist view of human behavior.
In Sophie Barthes’ Cold Souls, Paul Giamatti has his soul removed from his body to help him rehearse a play. In David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees, Jason Schwartzman pays “existential detectives” to shadow him so he can learn about his neuroses from trusted, objective sources. In the truly excruciating Stranger Than Fiction, Will Ferrell discovers his life is being written by an author with writer’s block. And in 500 Days of Summer, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s relationship with Zooey Deschanel is relayed in about as many genres, each represented in short segments about three minutes in length.
None of these movies is as clever as it thinks it is, and none of them is as clever as Kaufman. The glut of Kaufman knockoffs (if, like me, you were in film school in the wake of this period, you heard some classmate’s best impression of a Kaufman script read out loud at least once) is probably what chased him to make the hugely upsetting likes of Synecdoche, New York, Anomalisa and I’m Thinking of Ending Things — honest movies about lives slipping away from their heroes.
That’s the spirit
Sean Anders‘ Spirited is a very upsetting throwback to this period of second-hand creativity, when it was deemed revolutionary to turn the magical worlds of the mind into dreary, bustling office jobs. Not that some people can’t make this idea work. (Pixar did it successfully, but Apple TV+’s own Luck failed earlier this year.)
However, Spirited does more than simply turn Charles Dickens’ classic story it into a depressing day job (ignoring … well … everything, but specifically the fact that this was based on a book, not a tradition or stuff that kids believe or whatever). It does so in a neutered, post-Kaufman vein, with sarcastic, Joss Whedon-style, fourth-wall-breaking dialogue, and rules more complicated than a role-playing game.
Frankly, I should be given the Congressional Medal of Honor for finishing Spirited. It has nothing going for it, and it clocks in at more than two hours. Jimmy Fallon shows up as himself at the half-hour mark as if to remind me I’d make a mistake.
The agony of auto-tuned voices
I don’t know how or why auto-tuned singing became industry-standard in America. But anyone will tell you that if you want to make a musical episode of your TV show, you will not be singing. You’ll bark out whatever you want and a computer will make you sound the way Glade Plugins smell.
Movie musicals chose a hell of a time to make a comeback. Everyone sounds like a digital alarm clock now. Put together 400 auto-tuned voices, and every musical number comes to sound like the blowing of the trumpets of the apocalypse after the opening of the seventh seal, bringing hail and hellfire and burning all the trees and grass on earth.
In fact, Anders is hardly a director at all. He’s a lifeguard at a water polo match. His camera stares dumbly at all the dancing, unaware that there might even be a right way to film choreography. Every joke feels somehow both limply improvised and focused-grouped for maximum appeal to an audience who might sit down to watch Spirited in November 2022 and then never again. They’ll all be irrelevant in a month.
Spirited is the comedic equivalent of Christmas coal
It’s one of these smooth, featureless comedies that constantly makes jokes about its own existence, as if that makes it any better that we’re watching this appallingly cynical and lazy nonsense, produced for some unholy amount of money that could have fed the homeless instead.
This movie wastes the skills of talented people, even as it continues the funding of the Ryan Reynolds sleepwalking slush fund to ruin the cinema. It also allows Will Ferrell yet another movie where he isn’t funny. It delivers exactly two laughs over its torturous two-hour, seven-minute run time.
Spirited feels like it’s a bad joke in a ’90s sitcom meant to represent the nadir of culture. Unfortunately, it’s 10 times as long.
Merry Christmas. Hope you like unwrapping nothing.
Watch Spirited on Apple TV+
Spirited lands on Apple TV+ on November 18.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.