“I’ve hit rock bottom.” Matthew Broderick could often be found sitting on the ground, holding his head and repeating this mantra around the set of Deck the Halls, a festive lark sold on the impossibly real tagline “There Glows The Neighborhood.” Eulogized with an impressive 6% Rotten Tomatoes score from 83 reviews, Deck the Halls lies in a potter’s field of similar zombies, resurrecting annually for 25 days in December before returning to their unmarked and unmourned graves until that Hershey’s commercial with the ringing Kisses appears anew, or at least Black Friday. It is a regulation Holiday Romp™, and it is an abomination.
Now I’m not decrying all Christmas entertainment; Charlie Brown is forever above reproach. But on an almost annual basis, moviegoers are given a dire gift. The trailer usually features a famous face you haven’t seen in much lately and the Jackson 5 cover of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” The plot is uniform – Christmas sure makes people kooky, especially the family. The message, too, is uniform – fortunately, Christmas is a time for redemption and forgiveness. It all sounds cozy on paper, but in practice, it’s almost fiendish. Watching these Holiday Romps™ is a disquieting, depressing experience, despite the scene where the dad picks out a comically underwhelming tree or the mom botches dinner in the slapstickiest way possible. It’s not that these 90-minute marvels aren’t funny – though the shoe may fit – it’s deeper than that, darker.
What makes so many Christmas comedies something a shade past insidious is that they aren’t just rote or cliché – they defy the true meaning of Christmas, if not the entire human spirit.
Consider Deck the Halls, the movie that ushered Matthew Broderick into darkness. Buddy Hall (Danny DeVito, bored) faces a minor existential crisis when he realizes his house can’t be seen from space, so he sets about changing that with the power of too many Christmas lights. Steven Finch (Broderick), self-appointed town “Christmas guy,” isn’t about to let him get away with stepping on his own fractured sense of identity. Spelled out that way, there’s immediately a distinct hero and villain: Hall wants to overcome insignificance and Finch wants to stomp him out entirely. But note the title – Deck the Halls. The Hall family, staying one car-salesman paycheck ahead of crippling debt, are painted as the bad guys. Broderick’s Mr. Christmas, who almost crucifies his teenage daughter for wearing a shirt that shows shoulder and later makes his 10-year-old son hang from the top of a telephone pole, is our put-upon protagonist. But before our eyes adjust to this backwards lens, Hall “gives” Finch a new car and neglects to tell him that he still has to pay for it thanks to a contract he forged in his name. Then Finch shoots military-grade fireworks at Hall’s house with the stated intention of giving him a heart attack. These are despicable men. Their families rightly desert them by Christmas Eve.
I’d be willing to excuse Deck the Halls on the Problem Child Principle – a black comedy script is bought, misunderstood and grotesquely molded into a crowd-pleasing heart-warmer – but there are two big problems that make it not so. First, the ending. The lonely dads pool resources and light-up snowmen to win over their estranged families. It works, of course, and their redemption boils down to a handshake. That pursuit of the perfect Christmas almost claimed another couple of kooks and we’re told that the spirit of Christmas pulled them back from the brink. But it shouldn’t have. They were fully committed to financially ruining, publicly shaming, and outright murdering each other to prove they had more of that darn Christmas spirit.
The second evidence that Deck the Halls wasn’t a fumbled black comedy is how many other demoralizing Christmas movies make the same mistakes.
Christmas With the Kranks is so miscalculated that the only context in which it makes sense is an alternate 2004, a second-rate dystopia identical to our own except there, Christmas is a state-enforced holiday. Luther and Nora Krank decide to spend Christmas in the Caribbean after their only daughter moves away. This, obviously, is an unthinkable injustice to friends, neighbors, and the tri-state area. As news spreads of their depravity, the Kranks are treated like suspected Communists during the Red Scare. They’re strong-armed into still decorating their house to community satisfaction, and when they refuse, said community demands the decorations surrendered. But what finally destroys any suspension of disbelief isn’t the scene where Dan Aykroyd tries to run down Jamie Lee Curtis in a moving vehicle, or where Boy Scouts extort Tim Allen. Christmas With the Kranks earns its reputation as the gravest of Holiday Romps™ by siding with the neighbors. When daughter Krank decides to return, Luther and Nora are left at the mercy of these festive fascists. They help them out, sure, but only because they don’t want their daughter to be heartbroken at her parents’ miserly disgrace.
The lesson provides a dangerous clause to the paper-thin morality of Deck the Halls: Christmas sure does make people kooky, especially the family. Fortunately, it’s a time of redemption and forgiveness. So submit, you rat bastard, or face the consequences.
These Holiday Romps™ all misinterpret the same holy text – National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Surely there have been dysfunctional Christmas movies before and worthy attempts after, but few have managed its heartfelt-but-still-funny alchemy. Clark Griswold wants to put on the perfect Christmas, but everything from venomous in-laws to SWAT teams stands in his way. Many Romps™ have been made on this raw material alone. What they usually miss is the ending. Once he accepts that the gilded holidays of his childhood had their fair share of tarnish, Clark realizes he still managed to pull off the Christmas he wanted for his family. “I did it,” he says to himself with a sigh and a smile. For Holiday Romps™, there is no winning Christmas or even surviving it on your own terms. It is a carnivorous force of nature that demands certain traditions – family must be present no matter how inhumanly awful, especially if inhumanly awful – and no matter how closely it is humored, it will still pummel you into submission. Christmas is a character that nobody likes but is anxiously polite to because it’ll either ruin you or turn your entire life around.
Four Christmases takes each of the Romp™-standard archetypes around the dinner table and expands their irritation to entire families. There’s the uber-masculine side disappointed in their son, an uncomfortably sexual side that’s still making the kids cringe after all these years, and so on. The heroes commit the same sin as the Kranks – instead of visiting these shrill cartoons of human beings, they decide to take a tropical vacation. So not only are they subjected to the usual Christmas Wrath, but also must be redeemed by it. Their shared flaw? Not wanting kids. Luckily the spirit of the season shows them the way/batters them into submission, and Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon put aside their lack of chemistry to have a baby.
This year we’ve already gotten not one, but two Holiday Romps™: A Bad Moms Christmas and Daddy’s Home 2. Bad Moms is the clear winner between the two, but the parallels almost demand they be lumped together. They’re both about the leads’ comically exaggerated parents are flying in for the holidays. In fact, the movies are so similar, they both end with these mismatched parents, now rehabilitated and friendly, deciding to spend New Years in Vegas together. And when I say “rehabilitated,” I mean it. By the time the credits roll, a single Christmas has entirely turned around a deadbeat parent and Mel Gibson. Now that’s some kind of miracle.
Since Scrooge, Christmas has been synonymous with redemption and goodwill toward men. But it took no fewer than four ghosts and time travel to turn him around. These Holiday Romps™ just squeeze in a few moments of remorse between pratfalls and hostile relatives. The end result is either hollow or insulting, depending on your mood, and it only reinforces a toxic approach to the holidays.
Christmas is not a standardized test. You can’t pass. You can’t fail. It’s not an annual hurricane that takes preparation to survive and even then, there will be damage. There is no elven police force to charge you for copping out with Stove Top stuffing or letting that one strand of lights that goes out whenever someone opens the garage door stay out. There’s also no law making you tolerate terrible people, related by blood or otherwise, at the cost of your own well-being. Especially not in the hopes that this Christmas, they’ll suddenly change their ways.
I’m not calling anyone a lost cause, but Holiday Romps™ don’t even recognize the term – all bad eggs are only one good Christmas away. These movies reinforce every poisonous expectation and strain while laughing them off as necessary evils of the experience. That’s why their mediocrity curdles into a gentle malevolence: they’re part of the problem they present.
So this Christmas, spend it with the people you want to spend it with. Celebrate the way you want to celebrate. Eat at KFC on Christmas Eve because it’s the only place open. And for your own good and the good of all of us, don’t waste any of it on a Holiday Romp.™ Stick to Rudolph, Frosty, and Father Christmas himself, Clark Griswold.
Jeremy Herbert lives in Cleveland, which explains a lot.