Directed by: Joe Roth
Starring: Tim Allen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Dan Aykroyd, M. Emmet Walsh, Austin Pendleton
On the whole, this movie's as bad as you might expect, and in some ways worse. Still, on very rare occasions, it's better -- or at least funnier -- than I thought it would be.
I haven't read Skipping Christmas, the John Grisham novel this movie is based on, but it's easy to see that this is the sort of material that might be dryly humorous on the printed page but just look silly and unbelievable when translated to film. Clearly, this material needs a narrator's voice to be anything other than a rag-tag collection of Christmas-comedy cliches.
The story is so thin that you've seen all of it -- apart from the inexplicable inclusion of Santa Claus at the film's conclusion -- in the two-minute trailer. When Luther (Tim Allen) and Nora Krank's (Jamie Lee Curtis) daughter, Blair (Julie Gonzalo, A Cinderella Story), leaves the nest for the Peace Corps, her parents face the idea of Christmas alone and a pall settles over Chateau Krank. Luther's big brainstorm is to skip Christmas and go on what can only be described as a midlife-crisis cruise.
The preparations for said cruise provide all manner of supposed merriment, from some strained slapstick involving Luther's Botox-injected face to the absolutely chilling image of Tim Allen in a skimpy bathing suit at a tanning parlor. (A reminder that there are some things that just ought not be seen by mortal man).
All this, of course, is merely a footnote to the main thrust of the film: The horror-stricken reaction of the Kranks' neighbors and friends to the prospect of anyone skipping Christmas. The idea might sound amusing, but it doesn't play that way -- at least not in the script by Chris Columbus, who seems to think that the Kranks are nothing more than slightly wrinkled Macaulay Culkins who have been left "home alone." As a result, the gags are nothing more than hideously broad slapstick and egregious mugging. Whenever the "inspiration" flags, something occurs that indulges Allen's penchant for making faces or causes Curtis to scream as if she's still in a Halloween picture.
While all this is going on, there's also a genuinely creepy subtext, courtesy of the fascistic Christmas enthusiasts. It starts with Luther's co-workers, who are the very spirit of Christmas -- in terms of what they might receive as gifts, that is. The neighbors, on the other hand, evidence an altogether different Christmas spirit, which comes down to a kind of conform-or-be-damned mindset. Now, this notion might have worked as a satire of suburbia, and, in fact, it provides the film with its few laughs. But then it transpires that Blair is suddenly coming home for Christmas, causing the Kranks to try, in 12 hours, to pull everything together for a real, old-fashioned Krankian Kristmas. They're unable to do it on their own, so the previously hostile neighbors end up pitching in -- proving, of course, that redemption lies in joining the lock-step mentality of the mob.
A more poisonous picture of Christmas is hard to imagine, a fact that the filmmakers seem to have realized. Near the end, a gooey subplot suddenly rears its treacle-drenched head, making no sense whatever and underlining the speciousness of the neighborhood's goodwill-to-men banana oil. The Kranks' across-the-street neighbors, Walt (M. Emmet Walsh, Snow Dogs) and Bev Scheel (Elizabeth Franz, Thinner), who've already been set up as plagued with illness (Bev has cancer), are suddenly, inexplicably and improbably revealed as impoverished as well. Since they're otherwise so much a part of the neighborhood, it makes no sense that no one knows this, and it makes even less sense that they alone are excluded from the Kranks' festivities -- except, of course, that this sets up the film's adult-sized dose of sentiment. The worst aspect of this subplot is the question it raises about the real lack of Christmas spirit in this picture-postcard neighborhood, where uniformly illuminated snowmen count for more than actually giving a damn about your neighbors.
Will all this bilge play with audiences? Probably so, since Tim Allen has (mystifyingly) become the poster boy for the Yuletide season. But anyone who stops to scratch the surface will find the aroma of something quite different from chestnuts on an open fire wafting from this Christmas concoction. Rated PG for brief language and suggestive content.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke