Nothing can trample the Christmas spirit quite like a megaplex Christmas comedy. The trend really kicked off two decades ago, when A Christmas Story (1983), that trash-the-halls adaptation of Jean Shepherd’s memoir (remember Darren McGavin salivating over his fetish leg lamp?), was unaccountably celebrated as an instant classic of toasty nostalgia. Today, pictures like Surviving Christmas and this week’s lump of coal, Christmas With the Kranks, demonstrate that there’s a thin line indeed between satirizing intolerance and celebrating it.
The Kranks (Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis), despite their grouchy name, are a sweet, soft-bellied middle-class couple. When they learn that their daughter, who is on a Peace Corps mission, won’t be joining them at Christmas for the first time, they decide to give the holiday a break by taking a late-December Caribbean cruise. Silly them! The local townsfolk treat their decision to skip Christmas as if this were Invasion of the Holiday Snatchers and the Kranks were the last two people who hadn’t become yuletide pods. The card-shop clerk; the man who sells Christmas trees; the neighbor (Dan Aykroyd) who wants everyone to have an identical plastic Frosty statue — all look at the Kranks as if they had rabies. When Curtis’ Nora Krank tells her girlfriends at lunch that she’s not going to have her annual Christmas party this year, the entire restaurant gapes in E.F. Hutton silence.
In its hostile sitcom way, Christmas With the Kranks is a paranoid comic nightmare of conformity gone mad. What makes the movie a bizarre, if depressing, parable of the Bush era is that it never questions the homogenized wholesomeness of the Kranks’ neighbors. If anything, it’s on their side. Tim Allen has a few funny moments as he gets tanned and Botoxed for his vacation, and Jamie Lee Curtis, in clueless-goofy mode, couldn’t be less than charming if she tried, but it’s painful, not to mention flat-out witless, to see two actors this genial play fuddy-duddies who learn that Christmas is coming to their living room…or else.