Here’s the only plausible explanation for “Pottersville,” a nearly unwatchable — but inexplicably star-studded — new Christmas comedy which is making a brief pitstop in select theaters before spending the rest of eternity in the storage room of your local Walmart: A veteran producer at the Hallmark Channel was at the end of his rope (for the purposes of this hypothetical scenario, let’s pretend said producer was “Pottersville” director Seth Henrikson, whose sparse IMDb credits leave plenty to the imagination). Frustrated by a career spent churning out festive — and weirdly horny — shlock like “A Very Merry Mix-Up,” “Matchmaker Santa” (featuring Lacey Chabert), and “A Boyfriend for Christmas” (the story of an infatuated girl who wastes her 20s waiting for Santa Claus to come down her chimney), he finally broke.
Some scholars argue that it was the 2007 Melissa Joan Hart / Mario Lopez vehicle “Holiday in Handcuffs” that pushed him over the edge; others maintain that he didn’t show signs of fatigue until 2014, when Hallmark aired a movie that’s literally called “A Cookie-Cutter Christmas.” Regardless, it became clear that something had to be done.
So Henrikson —or the version of him that we’ve invented here — did what any tortured artist would do in that situation: He pitched his boss on an edgy Christmas movie, something that could meld Hallmark’s signature tone with some darker subject matter. The economy! Infidelity! Casual racism! It could still run deep with that ho-ho-holiday spirit, but with some furries thrown in for good measure. A warm and fuzzy comedy wrapped around a noxiously bitter sense of humor, the film’s premise would sell itself: “Miracle on 34th Street,” but instead of Santa Claus, it’s about Bigfoot.
He was immediately fired.
But then, a Christmas miracle: Destitute and alone, left with nothing but their yuletide vision, Henrickson drunkenly stumbled upon an abandoned USB drive behind the manger of a local church. On it he found a genuine treasure trove of blackmail, full of incriminating information about a random assortment of beloved character actors. Michael Shannon! Judy Greer! Ron Perlman! Ian McShane! They were all there. And soon, they would all be gathered together in upstate New York, bringing the dream of “Pottersville” to life in exchange for their freedom.
There’s really no other way to make sense of this madness.
Historians may rationalize it as a means to an end, given the fact that the film was produced in conjunction with Utica’s SUNY Polytechnic Institute as part of a state tax scheme to build an upstate hub for film production, but such semantic details would only explain the incompetence on display if “Pottersville” had been written and directed by the local politicians behind the plan. And even then, maybe not. This doesn’t feel like a work of art that was arranged by carefully assembling a cast of willing professionals, that came together through mutually agreeable conversations with their agents. No, bad movies happen to good actors all the time, but “Pottersville” is something worse — not malevolent so much as utterly mystifying. It’s a movie that’s mere existence is infinitely more amusing than any of its jokes. It’s a movie that has zero sense of its own tone, and somehow even less of a handle on its relationship to the genre that it exists to parody and/or celebrate. It’s a movie that starts with the worst digital snow you’ve ever seen, and ends with someone earnestly saying the words: “You thought you had to become Bigfoot in order to save this town, but it turns out you saved it by just being you.”
Aptly named in reference to the bizarro nightmare town from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” this new Pottersville might be even more depressing than the one that George Bailey managed to escape. Sad since the local mill closed a few years prior, the streets are empty and the storefronts are wallpapered with “for sale” signs. In fact, at first it seems as though Maynard is the only living man in town. Effectively playing against type (even though his angelic turn in “The Night Before” offers some precedent for this), Shannon endows his character with the spirit of a sweet eccentric. Maynard is so kind that he lets everyone pay on credit because he knows they’re struggling — so clueless that he doesn’t even pick up on the fact that his sole employee (Judy Greer) is harboring a massive crush on him.
Sometimes, it seems like Maynard is singlehandedly holding Pottersville together. The sheriff (Perlman) certainly isn’t helping, as he’s busy sneaking over to Maynard’s house and being a furry with his wife (Christina Hendricks, in a brief but staggeringly thankless role). Furry jokes, it turns out, have not aged well. Fortunately, Daniel Meyer’s laugh-free script only has like 25 of them. In a way, the entire movie is an interminable furry joke, as the plot only kicks into gear when Maynard expresses his marital woes by dressing up in a gorilla costume and drunkenly raging through town. Pottersville, being one of those terrible movie towns that’s exclusively populated with idiots, collectively agrees that they’ve had a Sasquatch sighting. And Maynard, desperate to give his flock of morons a reason to go about their miserable lives, decides to keep this dumb secret to himself and restore a little wonder to the holiday season.
The next thing you know, Thomas Lennon is helicoptering into the action as the Steve Irwin-like host of a reality show about hunting Bigfoot, his Australian accent so terrible that you can immediately tell the character himself is faking it. Cue 45 minutes of he and Ian McShane sitting in the woods and waiting for something — anything — to happen. McShane’s character, by the way, has so few discernible traits that the actor might as well be playing himself. At a certain point, he sells Maynard some elk meat. There are 80 minutes in this disastrous miscalculation of a movie, and that’s easily the best one.
The worst part of “Pottersville” is similarly easy to identify: It comes when a Latina local news anchor named Gutierrez rolls her “r”s for comedic effect when signing off on a broadcast, as though — in a town where half of the residents dress up like stuffed animals and hump each other in the woods — there’s something ostentatious about this woman pronouncing her name correctly. It’s troubling that someone thought this joke was worth including in the film; it’s deranged that someone thought it warranted being repeated three times. No wonder Shannon seems increasingly confused whenever the action cuts back to him. It’s as if they shot this thing in sequence, and Lennon’s Yeti song made him snap.
In a year full of disturbing events, there’s something uniquely unsettling about seeing Michael Shannon look as shaken as the rest of us. Maynard might save Christmas, but we all lose a little something along the way.
“Pottersville” opens in theaters and on VOD on Friday, November 10. It will be available on DVD in time for Christmas.