“I really want my house to be seen… from space!” It’s a patently inane idea. Not inane enough, though, that SuChin Pak doesn’t show up with cameras to cover the moment when Buddy Hall (Danny DeVito) flips the switch on his hyper-illuminated abode and send his gaga neighbors into a collective state of ooh-ooh-ooh enchantment.
In another movie, this moment would be cheesy, what with the MTV attention heaped on small-town Massachusetts, but it’s also conceivably endearing. In this other movie, Buddy’s a lonely guy desperate not to feel “invisible” anymore, his obsessive efforts to announce his existence to the heavens demonstrating that he is honestly pathetic and maybe spastically noble. But no. In Deck the Halls , Buddy is only abject, and not a little embarrassing to watch. A generic enough loser, he’s also so erratic and off-putting that the film never gets back around to the point where you care whether he turns on his lights or makes up with his earnestly buxom wife Tia (the Tony Award-winning Kristin Chenoweth, here allowed to perform a couple of bars in a carol, which she sings beautifully, but otherwise playing the same role she played in RV).
You’re inclined to wonder why the lively, apparently independent-minded Tia is married to Buddy, who’s a straight-up generic loser (not quite enlivened by the mere idea that DeVito is playing him). A car salesman who’s so “good” at his job he sells a car to the unsuspecting owner of the dealership, Buddy never pays off the way he’s set up to pay off: his meanness never turns clever or enlightening or even, for the most part, recognizable. Instead, his bad behavior is at once desperate and dull.
Buddy’s primary function appears to be his effort to be friends-then-enemies-then-friends with the guy next door, a mousy eye doctor named Steve (Matthew Broderick, struggling as if to channel his own performance as Election‘s Jim McAllister). Buddy and Tia have just moved to town, whereas Steve feels more or less in place, and, specifically, king of the local Christmas celebrations domain, such as it is.
The men engage in fierce competition for eminence in this domain for no clear reason, except that they live in this year’s Bad Christmas Movie, the annual debacle premised on a half-sentence worth of plot and filled out by witless slapstick and supporting characters in horrendous seasonal sweaters. All this leads, slowly and clumsily, to someone’s recovery of “Christmas spirit,” usually having to do with appreciation of family and neighbors over the desire for material and status, though of course, the winner in such formulas tend to claim all by the denouement.
In this case, that means Buddy’s gazillion lights come to “mean something” for him and the neighborhood (and, apparently, SuChin Pak), even as he’s financed the adventure by selling Tia’s prized vase. His reaction to her upset is surprise, as if he can’t imagine why she’d begrudge him his triumph, namely, making the lit-up house visible to a satellite mapping gizmo that delivers google-like shots of neighborhoods to computer screens, first revealed to him by his terminally languid teenaged twins (Kelly and Sabrina Aldridge, all, like, breaking out from 8th & Ocean).
Tia’s patience with her man is par for the course in such outings, though she gets a run for her put-upon spouse money from Steve’s wife Kelly (Kristin Davis). An aspiring cookbook writer, because that’s what wives do in these situations, Kelly is also raising their two kids, 10-year-old boy Carter (Dylan Blue) and 15-year-old Madison (Alia Shawkat), who appears in a couple of scenes to be dating sailors on leave in order to upset her father. Both Steve and Buddy are further upset, in a most perverse sense, when they observe a Winterfest talent show: bonding at last by shouting obnoxious, manly comments at girls in short Santa-themed skirts, with their butts turned to the audience. You know where this is going, so when Steve blurts out, “Who’s your daddy?”, the revelation that the men are shouting at their own daughters is only tedious. Yes, these guys are morons. We get that already.
The men’s competition escalates. The women and children are caught in crossfires. And the rest of the townsfolk gather round ritually to watch the emotional meltdowns, literal fires (Steve’s years-in-the-nurturing selection of Xmas trees go up in flames), and contests (a speed-skating race offers Broderick in an orange bodysuit, not so funny as it might have seemed on paper). By the time Buddy comes up with a live crèche (with green-goo-spitting camel) and a sleigh with skittish horses adorned with antlers via duct tape, you might be wondering just when the heartwarming spirit of the season is going to come crashing down upon these boy-men. (It takes about 93 minutes, all told, before they get religion and realize they really do want to be friends and be seen from space, together.)
The other obvious question is both more and less pressing. How did it happen that such determinedly ugly men-must-learn-their-holiday-lessons movies — Surviving Christmas, Christmas with the Kranks — are now de rigeur? (This one opened at number four in the weekend’s box office ranking, if you’re counting, and earned some $16.9 million.) While the phenomenon might be understood as an extension and holdover from the “male-bashing” TV effect identified by PopMatters‘ Michael Abernethy in 2003, it might also indicate an ongoing apathy and weary expectation about the holidays, not specifically targeting men, but rather, all “shoppers.” Given the violence and mayhem that now regularly crop up at Black Friday shopping mall ordeals, consumers might well see such obsession with cheesy ornamentation and smarmy one-upsmanship as normative, rather than ridiculous. Maybe Steve and Buddy’s sentimental reconnection at film’s end does inspire approval rather than despair over the state of movies or general good will on the planet. Avoid invisibility. Consume conspicuously.