Scandalous humbuggery

Christmas with the Kranks

Jamie Lee Curtis makes a mad, <i>Supermarket Sweep</i>-style dash for last-minute roastable chestnuts and other holiday victuals in <i>Christmas with the Kranks</i>.

Jamie Lee Curtis makes a mad, Supermarket Sweep-style dash for last-minute roastable chestnuts and other holiday victuals in Christmas with the Kranks.

Rated 1.0

One of the regrettable recent developments in movies is the rise of what I call the I-hate-Christmas movie. The formula is an easy one, and it works equally well for comedy (Jingle All the Way) and drama (Home for the Holidays, which was actually about Thanksgiving but followed the same pattern). Essentially, it consists of approximately 90 minutes of griping about what a nuisance, bore and downer the holiday season is, followed by a quick wrap-up in which the main character suddenly discovers what Christmas is all about. The last five minutes are supposed to be the movie’s “message,” but the relentless emphasis on what went before always shows where the makers’ real interests lie.

Christmas with the Kranks is the apotheosis—which is to say, the nadir—of the I-hate-Christmas movie. Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis play Luther and Nora Krank, whose daughter Blair (Julie Gonzalo) has gone off to Peru with the Peace Corps and won’t be home for Christmas this year. Luther sits down with his calculator and discovers that he and Nora spent $6,000 on Christmas last year, when for only about $3,000 they can buy a Caribbean cruise. So, he sends out a form letter to everyone they know telling them the family will be “skipping Christmas” this year (although it could be argued that anyone who tallies up what Christmas cost him vs. what he could have bought for himself has never observed Christmas at all).

Overnight, the Kranks become pariahs in the community, led by their smarmy, passive-aggressive neighbor Vic Frohmeyer (Dan Aykroyd). When the Kranks decline to buy Christmas cards or a tree, or to host their “traditional” Christmas Eve party, or to install a giant lighted snowman on their roof, they are met with snarls and catcalls of open hostility.

Then, on the morning of December 24, Blair calls with a surprise: She’s coming home for Christmas after all—and she’s bringing her new Peruvian boyfriend with her to show him what a good old American Christmas is like.

Christmas with the Kranks is ugly and repellent on almost every level. The one exception is purely visual: The cinematography of Don Burgess is crisp and colorful, much more pleasant than the characters he is given to photograph. Supporting actors all seem to have been chosen for their pinched, nasty faces, or for how robotic and insincere they can sound when saying “Merry Christmas.” Even Curtis, whose Nora is at best halfhearted in going along with Luther’s plans, is turned into a grimacing sourpuss. (In her last movie, Freaky Friday, she famously cried, “I’m like the crypt keeper!” In this one, she really is.)

The movie purports to be based on a book by John Grisham; not having read it, I can’t speak for how well the movie captures the letter or spirit of the original. But the screenplay is by Chris Columbus, and the truth is, his smudgy fingerprints are all over it. Even the direction, credited to Joe Roth, is very much in the Columbus mold: When in doubt, break something large, knock over some furniture and have somebody scream, “Ahhhhhh!!!” Then bring it all home with a cheap, hard yank in the general direction of the heartstrings, even if you have to guess where they are.

Christmas with the Kranks is leaden and dull, telegraphing every lame gag well in advance of the soggy punch line. But, more to the point, it’s mean-spirited and ugly-hearted. Everyone who celebrates Christmas is portrayed as a vicious monster, a shallow hypocrite—if not an outright bigot (“Not doing Christmas?! Are they Jewish?”). Luther is clearly intended to be the persecuted hero, but casting regular guy Allen in the role can’t hide the fact that the character is nothing but a cheap, selfish bastard. Every endless minute of the movie makes it more obvious, until even his wife sees it and calls him on it. His last-minute conversion is the movie’s own hypocrisy, Columbus and Roth saying “Merry Christmas” when they don’t mean it. It’s phony and insulting, but it’s not Allen’s fault; Laurence Olivier couldn’t have made it work.

It will be interesting to see how Christmas with the Kranks does against The Polar Express, a great-spirited movie by people who love Christmas and aren’t embarrassed to say so.