[19 November 2004]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Tim Allen needs to stop making Christmas movies. Though it appeared that the Santa Clause franchise had run its course, and even that the worst of this year’s seasonal movie dregs were already over (with Ben Affleck’s Surviving Christmas mercifully, almost immediately disappeared), Allen has come charging into the fray with the frenetic, ugly, and utterly depressing Christmas with the Kranks.
Based on a novel by John Grisham (Skipping Christmas), the movie shows up screenwriter Chris Columbus’ worst inclinations, that is, to deploy careening bodies, brutal smackdowns, and cruel deceits as grinding punch lines. The gag fest begins when the Kranks—Luther (Tim Allen) and Nora (Jamie Lee Curtis)—say goodbye to daughter Blair (Julie Gonzalo), who’s headed to Peru for work in the Peace Corps. Miserable at the prospect of their first Christmas without her, they come on the bright idea that they should skip the holiday altogether. As icing on this cake of a concept, Luther decides they should go on a $3000-ish cruise, in the process, saving the $6000 or so they usually spend on neighbor-matching decorations, office gifts, and a Christmas Eve party.
All this moderation is difficult for Nora, who likes to wear sweaters adorned with fuzzy snowmen and a little plastic wreath on her pert collar. Still, she wants to please her hubby, and he gets set on the cruise idea, buying them each bikini swim suits and tickets to tan at the local mall, and here Curtis makes another stand—as she did in the magazine More a couple of years ago—in support of honest aging, her middle-aged lumpy thighs on full display. As always, Curtis is terrific and game and you can’t help but love her. And she doesn’t need to be diving into the street in pursuit of a runaway canned ham. Watching her endure such repeated abuse—cowering under her covers when the neighbors gather outside, whispering into the phone as she begs Luther to come save her—feels like a pummeling.
Though Nora slowly comes around to sort of share Luther’s ardor for the cruise idea, she’s really wishing that Blair was home. But she’s a supportive, loving wife, even if her husband is a know-it-all despot who has to learn an important ethical lesson by film’s end. (This even though the other Christmas bullies don’t have to learn a thing; that is, if you’re, oh, Jewish or Muslim, don’t even think about moving into this Big Old U.S.A. neighborhood.) And so she agrees to leave off the Christmas cards, feel embarrassed in front of her friends (Felicity Huffman and Caroline Rhea, on screen for about four minutes), and board a plane on 25 December, bound for deck chairs and shuffleboard.
As if appeasing the husband isn’t bad enough, however, Nora is also beset by her neighbors. And herein lies the film’s central gimmick: the Kranks can’t just skip the holiday in private. No. Everyone in sight—from the stationery store clerk (Patrick Breen) to the local donations-collecting cops (Officer Salino [Cheech Marin] and Officer Treen [Jake Busey]—has a complaint and an imposition to make. It’s not bad enough that Christmas tree salesman Walt (M. Emmet Walsh, here reduced to snarly two dimensions) resents Luther’s stinginess; Walt also has a lovely, quietly suffering wife Bev (Elizabeth Franz), whose just-recurred cancer does nothing to broaden her dimensions, but to augment the tensions between the men, serving primarily as an background element in Walt’s front yard shots and hovering emblem of guilt for Luther.
More pernicious (and just plain irritating) is Vic (Dan Aykroyd), the neighborhood’s self-appointed Christmas marshal, which means he makes sure everyone gets their Frosty the Snowmen on their roofs by a certain date—when Luther’s remains stowed in the basement, behind the furnace, its eye start glowing evil red and for a minute, you think poor Curtis might be stuck in a holiday slasher movie. Instead, Vic sends his son Spike (Erik Per Sullivan) to stalk Luther, chanting for “Frosty” on the front lawn and crank-calling at all hours. It’s possible that these antics looked like jokes on paper, but by the time the entire hood’s population inflicts high-speed Christmas caroling on the Kranks, who cringe and grind their teeth inside their home, you’re inclined to think that maybe everyone here needs to take a cruise—permanently.
In the tradition of Arnold’s Christmas movie (Jingle All the Way 1996), Christmas with the Kranks makes the holiday into a dreadfully commercial and violent nightmare. It’s no surprise (if you’ve seen the 30 second tv spot) that Blair has a change of heart at the last minute and comes home for Christmas, with her Peruvian boyfriend Enrique (René Lavan) in tow. As he’s used to earnest, traditional celebrations, she’s determined to show off her national heritage. Mom goes into a tailspin, rushing around town to purchase whatever’s left in the supermarket, sending Luther to grovel at Walt’s boots for a Charlie-Brownishly de-needled tree, and enlisting every available warm body to speedy-decorate her home so Blair need never know they were going to skip Christmas.
Though the movie plainly skewers Christmas-spirit bullies, it does so with a plot that eventually congratulates them. Luther gives in, Nora is only content when wearing her red and green sweater, and even Enrique only seems able to accept his fiancée when convinced of her family’s dedication to proper seasonal rites. It’s enough to make you want to skip Christmas.