Title: Christmas With the Kranks
Genre: Comedy, Family
Director: Joe Roth
Screenwriters: Chris Columbus
Starring: Tim Allen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Dan Aykroyd
Christmas cheer is so difficult to pull off with a straight face that movies can sometimes fare better using a diametrically opposite approach (see Bad Santa). The holiday has become so intensely artificial that any attempt to bring genuine meaning to it — especially in a commercial venture such as a wintertime blockbuster — will find the deck stacked against it. At best, only the cynics in the audience will guffaw.
Christmas With the Kranks based on an uncharacteristically extralegal novel by John Grisham called Skipping Christmas, should ultimately turn off not only the cynics, but anyone who demands a shred of intellectual honesty from their message pictures. It’s disappointing, too, because for a while, Joe Roth’s film worked not only as a decent holiday farce but also as an indictment of holly jolly conformity — in its own way, I thought, this movie could turn out to be as incisive and controversial as Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa. Of course, I assumed that the movie would maintain course; in reality, it does an outrageous about-face, neatly dismantling anything of potential worth and coming out with a monumentally phony Christmas moral.
I really should have known, and I kind of did. Christmas With the Kranks sets up a conflict between the Krank family (Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis), who have just sent their beloved daughter away to the Peace Corps and see no reason to repeat their Christmas festivities, planning to take a Caribbean cruise instead, and everyone else, who is shocked at their flaunting of custom and demand compliance. This sounds like the makings for a wonderful satire, assuming that the movie takes the side of the Kranks and shows the others for what they are — shallow, conformist Christmas Nazis. For a while, it seems to be heading in that direction, as the Nazis, led by Dan Aykroyd, literally siege the Kranks’ house and are soundly ridiculed by a script with moments of real cleverness. But there are hints to the contrary as well — the Kranks are a little too brutal and unsympathetic in their determination, and having had a general idea of what kind of movie this is, I knew that these anti-yuletide undercurrents would not stand.
Indeed they do not; the second half of the movie turns the deranged neighborhood Gestapo into the Kranks’ saviors, as circumstances force them to plan a last-minute Christmas party. I’m not sure what to make of this, as I entirely approved of the Kranks’ actions pre-turnaround — predictably, the movie drags them kicking and screaming toward celebrating Christmas as conventionally as possible, and I don’t know why the hell they had to, or why everyone else’s absurd demands had to be met so slavishly. Whose business is it, exactly, if a husband and wife decide to go on a cruise? Have they not deserved it after raising a model citizen daughter and years of throwing spectacular Christmas bashes?
The movie is actually not as bad as all that, and even when the plot makes its hairpin left turn, there is some fun to be had with the Kranks stealing a Christmas tree and chasing after baked hams. Joe Roth directs all of this like a cardboard box, but the screenplay is by Chris Columbus, who at least has somewhat of a feel for slapstick comedy, though all of his most maudlin instincts are on display here as well. Jamie Lee Curtis and Tim Allen do what Catherine O’Hara and James Gandolfini mysteriously couldn’t in Surviving Christmas — add some charm and star power to a decidedly sub-par vehicle. Curtis will have a hard time living down her awesome turn in the Freaky Friday remake, but Allen gives maybe his best performance ever, and he’s the only element of the ending that isn’t utterly false.
People complain about the commercialization of Christmas, but in movies, there is an opportunity for those who really care about the holiday and what it means to harness commercialism to their advantage. Unbelievably stupid “Christmas movies” like Christmas With the Kranks are part of the problem. Even the far better Polar Express doesn’t offer much. All I want for Christmas is a good movie.