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Dustin Putman

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Christmas with the Kranks (2004)

Directed by Joe Roth
Cast: Tim Allen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Dan Aykroyd, M. Emmet Walsh, Elizabeth Franz, Julie Gonzalo, Erik Per Sullivan, Cheech Marin, Jake Busey, Austin Pendleton, Rene Lavan, Tom Poston, Caroline Rhea, Felicity Huffman, Patrick Breen
2004 – 98 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for brief language and suggestive material).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, November 20, 2004.

In "Christmas with the Kranks," directed by Joe Roth (2001's "America's Sweethearts"), middle-aged Chicago natives Luther (Tim Allen) and Nora Krank (Jamie Lee Curtis) are experiencing heavy bouts of Empty Nest Syndrome. With their 23-year-old daughter, Blair (Julie Gonzalo), spending her very first Christmas away from home on a Peace Corps mission in South America, Luther formulates a surefire way for he and his wife to get over their holiday blues: skip Christmas altogether and go on a Caribbean cruise. After all, the once-in-a-lifetime vacation is cheaper than going through the expensive modern-day rituals of buying presents and food and decorations. What Luther and Nora don't anticipate, however, is the vehement backlash they receive from their Yuletide-frenzied neighborhood, led by maniac dad Vic Frohmeyer (Dan Aykroyd), who begin to haggle them day in and day out to put up their decorations, including the ritualistic display of Frosty the Snowman on their roof. Just when things can't get worse, Luther and Nora receive a last-minute phone call from Blair, letting them know that she and her new fiancé, Enrique (Rene Lavan), will be making the trip back home for Christmas Eve. Now the Kranks only have a few hours to pull together and give their daughter the traditional holiday she's always known.

Written by Chris Columbus (director of 2001's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and 2002's "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets"), who should have known better, "Christmas with the Kranks" is a vile, morally repugnant lump of coal so unfunny and bereft of wit that it makes the recent Ben Affleck-starrer, "Surviving Christmas," look like an example of high comedic brilliance in comparison. Describing the many ways in which this film misfires would be nearly impossible without writing a twenty-page thesis on the subject, but counting off the things it does right are simple. There's only two. One scene in which Nora has a chance encounter in a wine store with a kindly man who clearly knows her, but whom she only politely pretends to remember, hits a truthful note. Everyone has had this sort of uncomfortable experience, and the way in which Nora says under her breath after the stranger walks off, "Who are you? No idea," feels real. The second compliments to be given is a climactic moment where Luther makes a sacrifice for two of his down-on-their luck neighbors (M. Emmet Walsh, Elizabeth Franz), a kind of sweet sequence that might have been more heartwarming had the preceding 90 minutes not single-handedly turned the viewer's aforementioned organ to stone.

The rest of "Christmas with the Kranks," based on an out-of-the-ordinary novel by lawyer-author John Grisham, is hopelessly, "I-can't-believe-what-I'm-seeing" awful. Viewed simply as a Christmas comedy, reminiscent of 1989's "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" had that Chevy Chase classic gone horribly awry, the movie doesn't offer a single laugh in its incessant 98-minute running time. A series of would-be humorous sketches in search of a punchline, "Christmas with the Kranks" parades out insufferable, "what-if?" scenarios instead of developing a solid storyline and likable characters, and then has no idea what to do with them. In one episode, Luther gets Botox in his face, rendering him unable to chew his dinner. Har-har. Once the scene is over, it is never mentioned again and, as far as can be told, has served no purpose. Another scene finds Luther and Nora changing into revealing underclothes and going to get tans at the mall. When Nora accidentally bumps her head in the booth and must go get a towel for her cut, she runs into her priest. End of scene. Time and time again, director Joe Roth sets up these self-standing moments, which might have had comedic potential in better hands, but hasn't the first idea how to weave them into a narrative or make them funny.

Sinking "Christmas with the Kranks" to the sub-level of a DOA cinematic dud is the way it offensively embraces materialism, narrow-mindedness, disrespect for humans, and even animal cruelty—a cat is frozen solid at one point but can still blink its eyes—and then expects to turn its woeful meanspiritedness into gold for a last-minute, feel-good conclusion. The community in which Luther and Nora reside in is a literal suburban nightmare come to fruition, complete with a smothering gaggle of neighbors whose actions border on psychotic harassment. Instead of respecting the Kranks' desire to play down the money-minded formalities of Christmas for the year and concentrate on the core meaning of the holiday, the rest of the neighborhood reacts as if it is the end of the world. They stand outside their house screaming for them to put up Frosty, Vic Frohmeyer chases Nora's car down the street when she leaves the house, the kids constantly taunt them, and they conspire with a group of Christmas carolers to sing outside their home—even doing it as they peer, prowler-like, through their windows. Watching these shallow, despicable individuals who have forgotten the true spirit of the holiday—and who are welcomed into their home by the Kranks at the end with nary a comeuppance or self-realization in sight—the viewer is forced to question how far these people would go under different circumstances. What if the Kranks were Jewish, or of any other religion that didn't celebrate Christmas? What if they were going through a tragic family loss? Screenwriter Chris Columbus doesn't question such things, nor does he appear to even disagree with the neighbor characters' extreme, criminal actions.

A crystal-clear sign of desperation in any motion picture comedy that isn't working, the actors have decided to broaden and exaggerate their every mannerism and line of dialogue in a last-ditch effort to energize the proceedings. They fail, and then just grow annoying. As Luther, Tim Allen (no stranger to the seasonal genre with 2002's "The Santa Clause 2") should fire his agent or get his eyes checked before reading another script; one more screw-up and he will be the top candidate for "Blandest Actor in the Blandest Movies in Hollywood." As for the usually lovely and talented Jamie Lee Curtis (2003's "Freaky Friday"), as Nora, Curtis turns in a shrill, scream-every-other-line performance. To add insult to injury, she has been burdened with having to wear a truly unattractive and fake-looking wig that scratches out her natural beauty.

Julie Gonzalo (2004's "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story") is pretty enough as daughter Blair, but her character, whose actions appear to be independent-minded and headstrong, is presented by the actions of her parents as a young woman so unstable that her world would be shattered if she found out Mom and Dad were, for once, focusing on their own happiness rather than putting on their annual Christmas party. The majority of the other supporting players mimic fingernails on a chalkboard, with Dan Aykroyd (2004's "50 First Dates") almost unbearable as leader of the witch-burners, Vic Frohmeyer, and Cheech Marin (2003's "Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over") and Jake Busey (2003's "Identity") embarrassing as a couple of bumbling cops.

"Christmas with the Kranks" is contrived to the nth degree—when Nora leaves her house, the windows on her car are rolled down in the midst of winter for the sole reason of setting up a joke where Vic grabs hold to berate her. Technically, "Christmas with the Kranks" is a bust—for a holiday film, the picture mysteriously looks as if it was filmed in the summer, with small piles of fake snow dumped laughably on the sides of each lawn. Even rudimentary scene-to-scene continuity is squandered and confusing—when Luther and Nora drive Blair to the airport at the beginning, it is eight o'clock in the morning, and when they are seen driving back home, it looks to be the middle of the night.

"Christmas with the Kranks," one of the worst, most disingenuous Christmas movies in memory, is an amateurish, irredeemably hateful picture posing recklessly as a cheerful, harmless comedy for the whole family. I, for one, wouldn't want to be a part of the family who sees it and still believes this to be the case. Choosing to skip "Christmas with the Kranks" in favor of the wondrous, magnificent "The Polar Express" would be the best present you could give a loved one this season.
© 2004 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman