Aside from 2004's "The Polar Express
" and maybe 2005's underrated "The Family Stone
," have there been any great Christmas movies released this decade? Sure, there are plenty of classics from the past"It's a Wonderful Life," "A Christmas Carol" (any version will do), "A Christmas Story," "Prancer," and "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," just to name a few. Nowadays, we get disingenuous malarkey like "Christmas with the Kranks
" and "The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause
." Somehow, the true spirit of the holiday has been forgotten about by the majority of today's filmmakers and replaced with a smug, materialistic undercurrent nearly as offensive as the artificial and sappy emotions they serve up. The latest unsuccessful bid to ring in the Yuletide season is "Deck the Halls," a one-part mean-spirited, one-part saccharine, all-parts forgettable piece of fluff. It's more palatable than the blatantly offensive "Christmas with the Kranks
" and "The Santa Clause 3
," but that's not saying a whole lot.
A typecast Matthew Broderick (2004's "The Stepford Wives
") is stuck playing a poor suburban schlub for the umpteenth time as Steve Finch, an optometrist living a peaceful life with his familywife Kelly (Kristin Davis), 15-year-old daughter Madison (Alia Shawkat) and 10-year-old son Carter (Dylan Blue)in small-town New England. Steve practically lives for Christmas, using the entire month of December as a reason for celebration. This year, his fun is stopped dead in its tracks by the arrival of obnoxious new neighbor Buddy Hall (Danny DeVito). Buddy's respective family members are friendly enoughchatty wife Tia (Kristin Chenoweth) and twin teenage daughters Ashley (Kelly Aldridge) and Emily (Sabrina Aldridge)but Buddy himself is overbearing and directionless. For a middle-aged man still in search of that one thing that will make him feel happy and accomplished, Buddy becomes determined to dress up his house with so many Christmas lights that it will be seen from space. The widespread attention the Hall household receives for its decorations and the personal disruption this causes the Finch family can only mean one thing: a vindictive all-out war between Steve and Buddy.
Like a retread of "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" without the extended family members, the crackerjack comedic writing and genuine X-Mas cheer, "Deck the Halls" steals from that Chevy Chase mainstay right down to the countdown calendar that marks the days of December off throughout the story. When director John Whitesell (2006's "Big Momma's House 2
") strays from this derivative pattern, what is left are a bunch of broadly comic set-pieces involving the supposed good guy, Steve, and the supposed bad guy, Buddy, sinking to an equally low level of immaturity and seeking revenge on each other in increasingly extreme ways. As cars get severely damaged, electrical wires are cut, missiles are launched, a living room burns down, and marriages come close to being destroyed, the viewer is left to ponder why screenwriters Matt Corman, Chris Ord and Don Rhymer thought any of this would be funny. The number of chuckles "Deck the Halls" has can be counted on one handthe best laugh involves a doctored family Christmas photo and the number of nice moments are fleeting.
Kristin Chenoweth (2006's "R.V.
") is the film's only chance for a savior, and she is very goodtoo good, actually, for the lowbrow material. As petite and friendly spitfire Tia, Chenoweth grounds her slightly quirky and extroverted character in reality, trusting her instincts as she delivers some tart one-liners and brings levity to her marriage with Buddy. When Tia speaks her mind to Buddy in a late scene, finally putting up her foot at the mess he has made of his family and life, Chenoweth finds an honesty that the rest of the film is deficient of.
As Steve's wife Kelly, Kristin Davis (2006's "The Shaggy Dog
") repeats the typical mom role she has begun to make a post-"Sex and the City" career out of. Davis has little to do but make stern and disapproving looks at Steve. As the grown men in Tia's and Kelly's lives who conduct themselves as twelve-year-olds, Matthew Broderick is a well-meaning snore as Steve and Danny DeVito (2006's "The Oh in Ohio
") is typical DeVito as Buddy. The various children in the Finch and Hall clans are barely distinguishable beyond their physical features.
With his wayward mutual revenge plot exhausted, director John Whitesell reels the madcap comedy in and goes for sentimentality. The very ending that is cooked up is unconvincing, even if its heart is in the right place, and requires a lengthy suspension of disbelief as the ridiculous story developments rise atop each other. For example, when a group of characters follow a path of meticulously designed decorations leading from a hotel in town to a house in the suburbs during one such third-act scene, it aspires a bad laugh that isn't quite the reaction Whitesell was going for. Meanwhile, the viewer sits in stony silence for nearly all of the intentional strains for humor. "Deck the Halls" is too unpleasant to earn its underlying sweetness, and not scathing enough to be accepted as a black comedy. It's mediocrity personified, and that's one thing no one should want on this or any year's Christmas list.