As the year stumbles toward its conclusion and critics begin penning their best-and-worst compendiums, here's a holiday contender fit for the all-time Naughty List. Based on the John Grisham novel Skipping Christmas -- which, face it, is less a novel than an impulse item stacked on bookstore checkout counters -- Christmas With the Kranks offers an obnoxiously condescending portrait of Regular People who live in the red states and wouldn't think of getting blue at Christmastime. They're suburban automatons dressed in dull shades of muddy brown and smoke-stained yellow, pale shmucks who buy their tans in mall kiosks, uptight and overweight empty-nesters married to skinflint pricks. With their roofs adorned by life-sized snowmen, their homes trimmed with thousands of sparkling lights, their guts full of booze guzzled on Christmas Eve, they fetishize Christmas and all its accoutrements and damn anyone who thinks of December 25 as just another day on the calendar. God help the poor Hebrew or Hindu who moves into this neighborhood.
This is Big Studio's hateful version of suburbia, a drab place where people dress alike, think alike, look alike and act alike -- to the point of abhorring anyone who would revolt against the norm. A case could be made for satire, if only Christmas With the Kranks at all sympathized with its rebels. But instead, it's a celebration of conformity, a film that begs for laughs by mocking and ridiculing anyone who harbors an original thought or action. It makes its dissenters out to be dopes and cheapskates, Scrooges dishing out ill will as others dole out their good tidings with plastic grins that come to resemble smug sneers.
Tim Allen sleepwalks his way through the movie as Luther Krank, a middle manager in a fluorescent office who decides one afternoon to ditch town for the holidays and take wife Nora (Jamie Lee Curtis) on a Caribbean cruise. Their daughter, Blair (Julie Gonzalo, known, if at all, for Dodgeball), has left home to join the Peace Corps, and Luther would rather be out of the empty house for the holidays. Besides, he figures, the Kranks spend some $6,000 annually on the holidays; better to spend half that, he tells Nora, and have something to show for the expenditure.
Nora's a reluctant accomplice: She's saddened by the absence of their daughter and terrified at what the neighbors will think of their refusal to host the annual Christmas Eve bash or join in any other reindeer games. Her apprehensions are well-founded. Burly, buzz-cut neighbor Vic Frohmeyer (Dan Aykroyd), with his 1950s-dad apparel and Chicago accent, runs the street like a suburban ward boss, handing out veiled threats along with holiday greetings. Vic and his henchmen -- actually, a gang of kid toughs led by Malcolm in the Middle's Erik Per Sullivan -- terrorize Nora, demanding she "Free Frosty," the snowman hidden in the Kranks' basement. Curtis plays the part like she's remaking Halloween yet again, shrieking behind locked doors.
Director Joe Roth, head of the ironically named Revolution Studios and maker of the repugnant America's Sweethearts, does all he can to humiliate Allen and Curtis, to the point of parading Curtis around in a bikini several sizes too small in a tanning salon. Curtis was celebrated two years ago for demanding to be photographed sans makeup and anything else save a Spandex bra and shorts in More magazine; she wanted women to realize that even movie stars have jiggly tummies and thick thighs. But Roth takes that moment, that statement, and wrings the meaning from it -- all for cheap, humiliating laughs. We're meant to groan and gasp at the image of Curtis, who bared her breasts to Aykroyd in Trading Places, running around a mall without her clothes on, bumping her head on a tanning bed and bumping into her priest (Tom Poston, yeesh). There's no dignity in being used as a punch line, especially in something as insipid and inconsequential as Christmas With the Kranks. It's a fate that befalls many in this film, among them Cheech Marin as a cop, Felicity Huffman as a desperate housewife, and especially Tim Allen, also squeezed into a bikini bottom and pumped full of Botox.
Luther's neighbors, among them M. Emmet Walsh as the crusty sumbitch with the heart of fool's gold, don't just love Christmas -- they hate anyone who doesn't, which makes them uncharitable hypocrites at best. They jeer and taunt Luther and Nora, hurling snowballs of invective at them till at last they get their way, when Blair, in the Peace Corps for all of a few days, returns home with a new boyfriend and expects to see the ornaments and mistletoe hung in their proper places. The Kranks are terrified not only of their neighbors but also of their daughter, to whom they can't admit they were going on a cruise.
A colleague who's actually read Skipping Christmas, poor bastard, says the screenplay for Kranks, by hack-turned-Harry Potter-hero Chris Columbus, is almost a word-for-word translation of Grisham's work; I wouldn't know, since I don't and won't ever read a word of his stuff. But that's not the point; a sixteen-month-old can repeat his parents' words. What matters is how the movie injects into those words a maliciousness aimed at the people uttering them, their alleged Christmas spirit laced with arsenic. A Christmas classic that makes Christmas Vacation look like It's a Wonderful Life, this is the perfect gift for people who hate people.
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