Richard Curtis has always been in the wish-fulfilment business, so it makes sense that the creator of Love Actually and Notting Hill would eventually write a film about a genie. Or rather, a second one. Curtis’s functionally titled latest project – appealingly if conventionally directed by Sam Boyd, the creator of the HBO series Love Life – is a remake of his own early television special Bernard and the Genie, which was broadcast on the BBC over Christmas in 1991.
Both the broad premise and a number of key jokes remain untouched, while the setting (hapless antiquities dealer meets genie) has been swapped from London to New York, and the genre to family-comedy-with-magic-bits, in the tradition of The Christmas Chronicles and other advent fluff. It’s fundamentally still a Richard Curtis film, but one in which his inclinations have been fitted to the needs of younger viewers – most of all, their attention span – which is good news for those of us for whom a little Curtis is more than enough.
Paapa Essiedu stars as Bernard Bottle, a sweetly self-effacing English assistant at a Manhattan auction house presided over by a smirking tyrant played by Alan Cumming (who took the Bernard role in the original). Work has eaten Bernard’s marriage to Julie (Denée Benton), and when he misses his daughter Eve’s eighth birthday, he finds himself on a trial separation – in the run-up to Christmas, too! – polishing a mysterious jewellery box that’s spent the past few years on his shelf. Pow: out pops Melissa McCarthy’s Flora in high-end panto gear, and much rash wishing (and subsequent comic regret) quickly ensues.
No upper limit of three here, though. Bernard can ask for as many things as he likes, providing they don’t involve time travel (too dangerous) or directly altering someone’s emotional state. At first, that looseness gives the proceedings a shruggy, low-stakes feel – anything that goes wrong can be easily undone, providing Flora remains within earshot. But after a few bumps, the film settles into an amiable groove.
McCarthy’s breezy comic persona works well with child-friendly material, whether Flora is fan-girling over Tom Cruise or blithely washing her hair in the loo. And Essiedu is so wildly charming as Bernard that, in the Curtis tradition, simply watching nice things happen to him is fun in itself. (Note that his wishes are all on a get-my-daughter-a-dollhouse scale, rather than a let’s-solve-world-hunger one.)
Absurdly, the film ends up flouting its own self-imposed rules to reach a suitably syrupy conclusion – and thereby avoid the more bittersweet, thought-provoking landing you find yourself wondering if it has the courage to go for. Well, it doesn’t: Genie is a sugar-only zone. But then, it is Christmas. Or near enough.
PG cert, 93 min. On Sky Cinema and Now from Friday December 1