Jamie Lee Curtis screams a lot in "Christmas with the Kranks." She also squeals and shrieks, as if her sole preparation for playing the wife of a man who insists on "skipping Christmas" the year their daughter won't be with them was to watch every overreaction Doris Day ever offered in her romantic comedies. And boy, does it get old.
So does this film by Joe Roth, which is based on the John Grisham novel, "Skipping Christmas." No one ever expects logic from a Christmas film, but "Christmas with the Kranks" makes so little sense that it's apt to leave audiences looking and feeling like reindeer in headlights.
The numbness (and dumbness) begins with the premise itself. After Luther and Nora Krank (Tim Allen and Curtis) pack their college-grad daughter, Blair (Julie Gonzalo), off to Peru for a stint in the Peace Corps, Luther gets it in his head that Christmas is no longer worth celebrating, and pushes for a Caribbean vacation instead. Rather than just buy the tickets and go, he has to make a big deal about it by boycotting every Christmas party, donation, decoration, and ritual that has ever lit up their holiday lives. In the process, he manages to disappoint and annoy more than a few people. Then he does it all over again, when Blair calls on Christmas Eve after being gone for just two months and says she's coming home after all . . . and with a Peruvian fiancé in tow (René Lavan). Now, they've got just a matter of hours to get those Christmas lights up, find a tree, and plan the party that they told everyone they weren't having this year. Oh, and find people to attend this party.
But the script by Chris ("Home Alone") Columbus tries too hard to be "zany," and just about every slapstick gag falls flatter than any of the fall guys. For one thing, Luther isn't set up to be the perpetual Grinch that would warrant all-out warfare from an organized group of vengeful neighbors led by Vic Frohmeyer (Dan Akroyd). After all, if their Christmas Eve party was the holiday highlight for the neighborhood, how unpopular could they be? Besides, they have an excuse: they're beloved daughter's MIA. But while we're at it, how grief-stricken can these neo-empty nesters be when their daughter is gone for just a few months? What's worse, though, is the neighborhood gathering where people speechify in order to rouse the troops to help the Kranks save Christmas: "Blair babysat for many of you." Okay, but Blair isn't George Bailey. Blair isn't even Harry Bailey. In fact, we see so little of her and there's zip-a-dee-do-dah in the way of back story that none of this seems rational, let alone emotional. But everyone who made plans of their own for Christmas Eve suddenly ditches those plans.
That's not even tackling the smaller gaps in logic—like why would Luther settle for a Charlie Brown tree when he's sent after big game, and why would his neighbor agree to let him "borrow" their tree overnight? And how would Frohmeyer's son get the keys to two cops' handcuffs, and why on earth would he release their prisoner (who was parked outside) so he could grab food inside the Kranks' party? And are we really to believe that the "real" Santa sells umbrellas and drives a vintage VW Bug? Sheesh.
Even if buy into the illogical plot points, the script's reliance on tired physical comedy is a liability, because the gags have all been done before, and done better. Is anyone really going to be surprised when a stoner plugs in the outdoor lights and gets zapped so hard that the whole neighborhood goes dim, or that Luther takes a header when he's trying to install a gigantic snowman on the roof in the dark, all by himself?
But that's nothing compared to a heart-tugging sideplot that's never developed properly. It turns out that the wife of a neighbor across the street that Luther has been feuding with has cancer and, according to the daughter who's a friend of Nora, may not make it for another Christmas. So where's this concerned daughter on Christmas, while her parents are sitting alone in their house? The cancer is played up again at the end—which is to say, exploited, but forgotten during the rest of the film.
Allen does his usual deadpan Everyman job, but Curtis goes ballistically cardboard with her over-the-top performance. "I'm the one on the front lines" she shrieks at her husband, referring to two simple incidents at the house. She cowers, she snivels, and she annoys beyond belief. The rest of the characters aren't given enough depth to do much of anything with their roles. Akroyd goes from menace to savior faster than you can drag-race a sleigh, and desperate housewife Felicity Huffman has all of two or three lines in a bit part that wastes her talents. Even veteran character actors Tom Poston, M. Emmet Walsh, and Cheech Marin aren't able to make lemonade from the lemons that this film puts in everyone's stockings.
To be fair, there's one laugh-out-loud moment: when Blair and her fiancé, who's seeing the United States for the first time, sit in the police car that picked them up at the airport while the cops set them screaming by slamming a suspect's face against the glass. What makes that scene funny is the understanding that the young man's first impression of America is a horrifying one, and the sheer surprise of the gag. Would that the rest of the gags were that effective.
"Christmas with the Kranks" is rated PG for brief language and suggestive content, but the most obscene thing is the screenplay itself.
Video: It's almost an unwritten Hollywood rule that the films that bomb have the highest quality picture. That's the case here, with "Christmas with the Kranks" mastered in High Definition and presented in two versions: 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen, and 1.33:1 "full screen," with brilliant colors and sharp details that pick up ever little light.
Audio: The sound is also excellent, with English Dolby Digital 5.1 and French Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround soundtrack options and English, French, Chinese, and Thai subtitles.
Extras: Mercifully, there are no extras.
Bottom Line: "Skipping Christmas. What a stupid idea," the Kranks decide. But it's an even stupider movie for putting us through it all. The only thing worse than a slapstick Christmas film that falls flat as Frosty in a meltdown is one that also tries to plug into honest emotions, but only comes across as being as plastic as those giant outdoor snowmen.