Contributor Bri Lafond enlisted in the help of her friend Jim Seals for her re-view of the Grisham/Columbus/Roth holiday laffer Christmas with the Kranks. It does not sound like they had a good time.
Bio (written by moi):
Jim Seals is a disenfranchised writer and aficionado of nerdy shit (we’re talking full-on Trekkie with a side of RPGs). He is my long-suffering best friend who has to sit through all the terrible movies I (for the most part) enjoy. As such, he is well on his way to transforming into the cantankerous Walt from this horrible movie (which even I didn’t like).
Christmas with the Kranks is a ho-hum mess.
Based on John Grisham’s 2001 novella Skipping Christmas, the film’s central thesis details the alleged comedic misadventures of one Luther Krank (Tim Allen), a middle-aged curmudgeon of indeterminate occupation, as he opts out of the exorbitant rituals of Christmas for a cost-saving cruise. Luther is matched with his aged wife (Jamie Lee Curtis), whose role vacillates from accomplice to foil at a moment’s notice, and is beset by a dictatorial ward boss, meddling neighbors, a vindictive (albeit suicidal) inanimate Christmas decoration, and his own lack of common sense.
The Krank household is short one as their daughter Blair (she of Veronica Mars, though not Veronica, fame) has joined the Peace Corps. Her destination: Peru, and she leaves on Thanksgiving weekend. Leaving the airport, Luther is drenched when he is caught up in a deluge while making multiple runs into the local grocer at his wife’s urging and has the film’s inciting incident when he espies an advertisement for a Caribbean cruise, complete with smiling models and a sign that asks if he is tired of the rain. From there wheels are set in motion as the Kranks forgo the season’s needless expenditures and copious rituals, including the Krank annual Christmas Eve celebration. That is until Blair calls and tells them she’s coming home. “Hijinks” ensue.
Paper-thin plot and inconsistent characterization aside, the film’s cardinal sin is in its pacing. Clocking in at 98 minutes, Christmas with the Kranks takes no chances and goes to the tried-and-true Hollywood standard of a three act structure: Act One introduces us to our two main characters, the Kranks, and ends with Luther smugly distributing to his coworkers a “skipping Christmas” memorandum, which sees Allen spelling out the entire plot to the lowest common denominator in the audience; Act Two sees the couple beset with various comedic set pieces all perpetrated by various disapproving third parties; Act Three sees the couple at odds as each tries to slam together a last minute Christmas Eve celebration for the sake of their prodigal daughter.
Where this three-act structure breaks down is in its execution. The opening two acts, which chronologically speaking covers the time from the Sunday following Thanksgiving—when Blair leaves—up to and including the morning of Christmas Eve—when Blair calls home—is no longer than half an hour, combined. This is in stark contrast to the film’s hour long concluding act, which covers the twelve hours leading to Blair’s return home. It is as if Editor Nick Moore, the assistant editor on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, finished cutting together Acts One and Two, looked at his watch, remembered that this was supposed to be a theatrical release and not a one-hour TV special, and feverishly started padding out the remainder of the film. As a consequence the last act is an odd, ethereal mixture of hurried nothingness as we blow through one “hilarious” antic after another, all the while dutifully calling back to another person that Luther somehow managed to piss off in the previous half hour.
Yet, never fear, gentle audience member, if one happens to leave the room to, say, reaffirm one’s sanity and is somehow lost amid all the triteness upon their return, one need only ask: How supportive is Jamie Lee Curtis in this moment? Of all the characters, Curtis’ Nora is all over the map. She is so inconsistent that her character arc is less a carefully laid out progression of events and evolving character motivations and more cinematic whiplash writ large. When Luther sells his plan to her, and the audience, for the first time, she listens with a skeptical ear. She voices some not unreasonable concerns—such as discontinuing their annual donations to the church and hospital—and is met with an unreasonable and entirely arbitrary response in return thanks to Luther’s one recurring character trait. However, when those concerns are met, she wholeheartedly signs on to the plan. By the time Luther issues his memorandum, she is an enthusiastic supporter. The subsequent act does see her character question this support somewhat; however, the continued pressure from interested third parties, all of whom have little to gain in their endeavors, does nothing save strengthen her resolve. A resolve that evaporates entirely upon one phone call from her daughter, after which she reverts to the same nagging shrew that sent her husband in the pouring rain not once, but twice for a bar of white chocolate from the grocer’s butcher. In fact, in the third act, she disowns the trip entirely, calling it his “stupid plan.” Nora is either at one didactic extreme or another with no middle ground to transition the narrative between the two.
In competition for the award of Least Consistent Character in a Major Motion Picture Featuring Tim Allen and Christmas is Dan Aykroyd’s Vic Frohmeyer. Much like Curtis’ Nora, Frohmeyer is whatever Screenwriter Chris Columbus needs him to be for that particular scene to work. He is either the sly manipulator, as seen when he quietly engages Luther on what Blair’s absence will mean for the entire neighborhood this Christmas, to domineering thug when he is leading a gang across the street and proceeds to bellicosely shout at Nora, demanding she releases a Christmas decoration, to overly enthusiastic assistant as he exclaims “I better go help Luther!” when the lights go out for the entire neighborhood. This tonal dissonance leads to a distinct lack of a through line. His character’s all-time worst moment is when the filmmakers insult our collective intelligence and expect us to buy into Frohmeyer’s Frank Capra-esque speech near the middle of the third act. Up until this point, we have only seen Aykroyd as a local bully; he has not helped anyone in the neighborhood. But now Columbus needs to somehow end this nightmare exercise in yuletide sadism and has Frohmeyer use an open ambulance as a dais and lecture the entire neighborhood on how great a human being Blair is and that everyone is needed now to make her Christmas magical, in spite of their mixed emotions towards Luther. I suppose we are to intuit from this sequence that the entire movie has seen him doing what he thinks is best for the entire neighborhood, but this is lost in all of Aykroyd’s bluster and posturing.
While none of the remainder of the supporting cast quite reach either Nora Krank or Vic Frohmeyer level of inconsistency, all fall squarely into the category of poorly drawn, one-note caricatures. There are the Scheels, Walt and Bev; he is the cantankerous meddler and she is the cancerous patron saint of good-humor. There’s Patrick Breen’s uncredited character, the effeminate small-time printer who Nora jilts and is seen playing Irish pan pipes at film’s end (because… effeminate, I guess?). We have Wes Trogden, the one black neighbor with actual speaking lines in this entire film, who has that go-to-knee slapper of “man afraid of wife” characteristic. There’s also the rapscallion Spike Frohmeyer (he of Malcolm in the Middle, though not Malcolm, fame), and a couple other forgettables who only stand out on multiple viewings (endured solely for a Ten Years Ago review) thrown in for good measure.
Then there’s Santa Claus. Yes, it would not be a Tim Allen Christmas movie without Old Nick. This time around, Kris Kringle is played by Austin Pendleton. This is where the movie leaves realism in the rearview mirror and starts merging into the oncoming magical realism lane. We are introduced to Santa during the film’s inciting incident. Here he is seen as nothing more than a roadside Santa selling umbrellas. He attempts to sell one to Luther, who turns him down twice, thus setting up the scene’s all too obvious punchline when he is subsequently soaked with a Niagara-level cascade of water. Then Santa vanishes. He does not turn up again until much later as “Marty” when Nora is purchasing a crate of pinot noir. No one knows who he is, but he has an almost encyclopedic—if not downright supernatural—knowledge of all the characters in the film, and is seen interacting with random strangers with a level of intimacy rarely afford to street corner vendors. The film ends with “Marty” dressed as Santa Claus knocking out a would-be criminal with an umbrella much to the amazement of Luther. If the film had ended his runner there, that would have been an odd addition, one that could have easily ended on Moore’s cutting room floor, but the film doubles down. The last shot, which is an exterior on the Kranks’ house, is of “Marty’s” VW bug taking to the air care of a sledding team of reindeer and racing towards camera.
The inclusion of Santa is not the film’s sole dalliance with magical realism troupes. The Christmas decoration that the Frohmeyers are so obsessed with, this 7’ Frosty the Snowman that belongs to the Kranks, is alive. Not only is he alive, he is also suicidal. We are not physically introduced to the Kranks’ Snowman until later in the film’s ponderous running time. While more screen time than was needed is given to discussing Frosty’s existence and Luther’s refusal to release him, it is not until a gaggle of carolers come, loudly singing Gene Autrey’s “Frosty the Snowman,” that the Kranks, fleeing into the basement of all places, see this monstrosity. In the background we hear “came to life one day” as we see an upward shot on the decoration’s garish countenance. The lighting here is fitting a B-horror film; the subtext is plainly spoken here. Once he has established Frosty, Director Joe Roth continuously cuts to these reaction shots of the creature, each time to lighting changes to invoke a different emotion. Sadly, Roth, like all impertinent children, cannot leave well enough alone and what could have been misconstrued as subtext becomes text. When Luther is attempted to mount the snowman precariously on the rooftop, the object’s coal gaze lights up crimson red, as if those coals are burning, when it starts teetering close toward Luther. Luther begins talking to the creature, begging it to go the other direction. The Snowman takes the plunge, sending Luther down with him, and shatters on the ground below. The last shot on this particular decoration is of Spike standing over him, mournfully, as the coals go out. (Also, it should be noted that as we see Santa’s exit, a CGI snowman on another house is waving us a fond farewell—just in case there was room for any doubt as to the liveliness of a 7’ Frosty the Snowman decoration; thank you, lowest common denominator.)
Lastly, there is Luther Krank. Krank’s second line in the movie is a complaint, when he mutters that Blair chose the worst travel day of the year. He spends no time with his daughter; he fails to even to tell her he loves her when she leaves and instead merely awkwardly stands there, hemming and hawing with Allen’s copious chins waggling about. Luther is a small man and that is almost all you need to know about him. Although we are never told what his occupation is we are told that he has not made partner yet. (With Grisham’s involvement, we can safely assume lawyer; way to be creative there.) He despises people whose names are not Luther Krank and is seen manufacturing conflict where none is needed with his boorish pigheadedness and total lack of social graces whatsoever. For instance, I have commented on his memorandum earlier, which he hands out to his entire office (including a random bike deliveryman that was passing through to the set of Premium Rush), declining his involvement in the Christmas season. Now, that memorandum did not need to exist, nor should it have been so gleefully thrown around as if he did not care. Luther’s personal life is his own and did not need to be the fodder of water cooler chitchat. If he should have told anyone, it would most likely be his own personal assistant, but that would require him to talk to her as if she was a person, which he seems entirely incapable of doing. No, instead of conversing, he closes his office door and writes this snide memorandum that serves no other point than to manufacture tension in the workplace. (Even his discussions with Nora are awkward and caustic, ending in a glib bon mot that misses the mark of humor entirely.) This habitual need to artificially create conflict is a pattern of behavior that is seen throughout the entire film. For all intents and purposes, he is his own worst enemy.
I suppose now is the time where I wrap this Christmas present of a review up with a neat bow. Perhaps a clever witticism to leave the reader with a smile on their visage? No, I think not. Christmas with the Kranks simply isn’t worth the effort; it is the cinematic equivalent of opening a festive, yuletide sweater from your least favorite aunt the day after Christmas; it might have all the colors of the season, but you truly do hope moths devour it before next year.
Free-Floating Thoughts (Mostly Bri here)
-Screenwriter/producer Chris Columbus? Oh: this might be decent! Oh, wait… this movie is from 2004. We’re fucked.
-I want all you readers to know that we did some extensive research for this particular re-view. And by “extensive research,” I mean we looked at a calendar. So: Blair is leaving the Sunday after Thanksgiving to go to Peru for the Peace Corps. When the Kranks get back to the house, it is already in full-on Christmas mode with decorations up all over the house. The Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2004 fell on November 29, yet Nora is already decked out in her ubiquitous “Christmas vest” and the house is fully decorated inside. Not completely outside the realm of possibility, I suppose, but that Christmas vest is going to look pretty sorry if Nora plans on wearing it for a month straight.
-Who spends $67 on “ornament repair”? Ever? In their lives? Much less as an annual expenditure?
-Everyone in this movie is a psychopath. That one guy who was an alien in Galaxy Quest—a much better Tim Allen movie—full on closes down his boutique stationary store to stalk Nora into a restaurant and announce to her friends (Caroline Rhea and Felicity Huffman, in the first of their two whole scenes in this movie) that Nora isn’t buying Christmas cards or invitations this year. After Nora explains the situation and that she and Luther are leaving on Christmas day for their vacation, Felicity Huffman has the gall to say: “Oh, well you can still have your party then.” The movie wants us to side with Nora’s friends and see that the Kranks are being selfish, but if I were at this restaurant, with a creepy dude continuing to stare me down from another table and my friends acting bitchy that I’m not throwing a party that they can attend, I’d be like, “Biiiiiiitch: throw your own party with the rest of your broke down Wisteria Lane crones!”
-The “rules” for this skipped Christmas are completely arbitrary and dependent on what the plot needs them to be at any given moment. We’ve established early on that the Kranks will continue their charitable donations for the year (despite Luther’s miserly objections), yet when faced with the Boy Scouts’ annual Christmas tree sales and later with the local police’s annual calendar sales, Luther doubles down and antagonizes both groups. How hard would it be to throw the Scouts’ $20 as a donation and say “No thanks” to a tree? Would it kill Luther to buy a $20 calendar which the police officers (Cheech Marin and Jake Busey) make clear is going to help with charitable activities? Boo.
-There are some bizarre throwaway lines throughout the movie that I’m pretty sure were ad-libbed. For example, shortly before escorting Nora to the tanning salon (where “hilarity” is sure to ensue), Luther complains that he’s never again going to “an Irish pub with fish tacos.”
-There is this stupid runner throughout the movie of Luther having an adversarial relationship with Walt and Bev’s cat. Luther accidentally steps on the cat multiple times and everyone brushes it off as wacky. Having had a cat that lost half her tail after it was stepped on by an errant trick-or-treater one Halloween, I personally have some objections to this being trotted out as “comedic,” but the very cheap-looking CGI rendering of the cat encased in ice is just insulting.
-“We made the front page!” Okay, so, Luther and Nora’s “skipped Christmas” is enough to make the front page of what appears to be a fairly large suburb of (I think) Chicago, accompanied by a production still from the movie showing Luther and Nora in their hilariously tiny bathing suits at the tanning salon. I’m not going to go into all the things that are wrong with this (there are far, far too many), but I will say that the props’ department did a fairly good job putting together a realistic-looking prop for a fairly small scene.
-Are you ready for some symbolism? As Nora reads How the Grinch Stole Christmas to a group of mildly sick-looking children in a hospital, Luther comes in to show off his newly-Botoxed face and lobster-red tan. The Botox (the effects of which last for precisely one scene) is supposed to make Luther appear Grinch-like, but he resembles nothing more than Lucifer himself by way of Miami Vice.
-If I have to hear the words “Hickory Honey Ham” one more time, I may fucking scream.
-Cheech Marin—as in the Cheech Marin—has the god-damned nerve to write “N. Reeky” in place of “Enrique” on the sign they use to pick up Blair and her fiancé at the airport.
-Speaking of Enrique, when Blair calls to say she’s coming home and, by the way, she’s engaged, Blair says to her parents: “You remember him. We went to Brown together. You used to call him ‘Rick’.” This is all seemingly done in ADR, and I have a sneaking suspicion this was added in much later in production because they didn’t want Blair to look like too much of a dumb whore for getting engaged after less than a month of meeting this Peruvian guy. Because what are the odds that she would be in Peru with a Peruvian guy who she happened to know before? But didn’t have a prior romantic relationship with? Moreover, when Enrique finally shows up at the Kranks later in the movie, Luther says, “It’s nice to meet you.” Why do I care about this? This movie is terrible.
-Luther has to learn his lesson, right? So we have this thrown together Christmas Eve party happening and Luther is sulking at the kitchen table when he sees that across the street crotchety Walt and cancer-angel Bev are eating alone. He takes over A GODDAMNED HICKORY HONEY HAM to wish them a merry Christmas when, at this point, he should be walking over there to give them the tickets for the Caribbean cruise which he knows he’s not going to get to go on. However, this clearly wasn’t cinematic enough: the director has to get Luther into the middle of the snow-covered street, literally standing at a crossroads between this poor elderly couple and the joyous celebration occurring in his own home, so that the camera can pull back into a wide shot for the trailer. SYMBOLISM! Ugh: this movie is the worst.