Hollywood has offered up three Christmas movies this season. Come Dec. 26, can we take them back to the mall with all those other unwanted presents and exchange them for something good?
"Christmas With the Kranks" is better than its predecessors, the dreadful "Surviving Christmas" and the bloated "The Polar Express." Yet the movie, adapted from John Grisham's short novel "Skipping Christmas," still is one that's best skipped.
Warm and earnest performances by Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis make it a bit more tolerable and at times, almost cheery. But laughs are scarce, and the tinsel-thin story plays out like two separate one-note jokes:
- First, Luther Krank (Allen) convinces wife Nora (Curtis) that they should duck out on Christmas and use the money for a Caribbean cruise now that daughter Blair (Julie Gonzalo) is in the Peace Corps in Peru and won't be home for the holidays. The movie's first half is a shallow succession of gags involving disbelieving neighbors, friends and colleagues who cannot fathom why anyone would forgo the Christmas rush of shopping, parties, greeting cards and decorations.
- Second, Blair calls from Miami on Christmas Eve, saying she and her new fiance are coming home after all and that they're looking forward to a traditional Krank holiday, complete with a huge party, a fabulous feast and a giant Frosty the Snowman on the roof. The last half of "Christmas With the Kranks" is another shallow succession of gags as Luther and Nora bustle about trying to create an instant Currier-and-Ives holiday for Blair's homecoming.
The movie's title presumably was changed from "Skipping Christmas" to avoid confusion with Ben Affleck's "Surviving Christmas," which already had been slotted to open a few weeks earlier. The clunky choice of "Christmas With the Kranks" was appropriate considering how humdrum the movie turned out.
A few jokes click, notably Luther's frozen face after a Botox treatment and his purchase of the last Christmas tree on the lot, a twiggy thing that makes Charlie Brown's sapling look like a glorious blue spruce in comparison.
But producer-screenwriter Chris Columbus and filmmaker Joe Roth - the Revolution Studios boss who occasionally gets his hands dirty by directing a movie - rely on repetitive jokes that weren't terribly funny the first time.
Far too many jaws drop open in idiotic incredulity when the Kranks tell people they're skipping Christmas. Relentless attempts by a neighbor (Dan Aykroyd) and local children to prod Luther into putting up his giant Frosty decoration grow monotonous.
And the filmmakers might as well have put turnstiles up at the Kranks' doorstep to handle the cops (Cheech Marin and Jake Busey), Boy Scouts and others soliciting holiday charitable contributions, then stomping off in disgust when Luther turns them away.
Some pleasant chemistry develops among Luther, a crotchety old neighbor (M. Emmet Walsh) and his terminally ill wife (Elizabeth Franz), and that relationship provides a mawkishly warmhearted moment near the end of the movie.
By then, though, you'll likely be dreaming of better Christmas movies yet to come in some future holiday season.
"Christmas With the Kranks," released by Sony's Columbia Pictures, is rated PG for brief language and suggestive content. Running time: 98 minutes. Two stars out of four.