Producers: Brian Grazer, Eddie Murphy, Karen Lunder, Charisse Hewitt-Webster Director: Reginald Hudlin Screenplay: Kelly Younger Cast: Eddie Murphy, Tracee Ellis Ross, Jillian Bell, Thaddeus J. Mixson, Ken Marino, Nick Offerman, Robin Thede, Chris Redd, Genneya Walton, Madison Thomas, D.C. Young Fly, Riki Lindhome, Anjelah Johnson-Reyes, Lombardo Boyar, Danielle Pinnock and Timothy Simons Distributor: Amazon MGM Studios/Prime Video
Modern Christmas movies ordinarily have a fantastical element to them, but “Candy Cane Lane” goes way beyond the norm, becoming positively bizarre. And while the cast is filled with seasoned comic performers, it’s curiously short on laughs. Weirdness, yes; joviality, not so much.
Kelly Younger’s wacky script begins with a premise we’ve seen before (see “Deck the Halls”)—dueling suburban holiday decorators, in this case Chris Carver (Eddie Murphy), who in accord with his surname literally whittles the wooden figures he sets up in his front yard, and Bruce (Ken Marino), his neighbor across the street, who puts up big inflated snowmen and reindeer. Yet it’s Bruce who takes first prize in the Segundo, California neighborhood contest each Christmas. This year it’s more important than ever for Chris to win. He’s just lost his job and the salary that goes with it, and it’s announced that with this year’s first-place award will go a $100,000 prize.
So Chris and his younger daughter Holly (Madison Thomas) go off looking for decorations that will set their lawn apart. They come upon a weird little store, set under a highway overpass, that looks tiny but turns out to be enormous inside. The owner is an overbearing woman named Pepper (Jillian Bell), who offers an array of remarkable items, most notably a huge merry-go-round illustrating all the items catalogued in “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Instantly recognizing it as the pièce de résistance that’s bound to win the contest, Chris purchases it, in the process signing a receipt without reading the fine print (a plot device the movie shares with “Wonka”).
The problem is that Pepper is a renegade elf from Santa’s factory, and violating the specifics of the fine print on the receipt will doom Chris to join her earlier victims—Pip (Nick Offerman), Gary (Chris Redd) and Cordelia (Robin Thede), who inhabit a doll-house sized bit of old London as living porcelain figurines that might pass as tree ornaments. The night after Chris sets up the carousel, the figures depicted on it escape into the real world to cause havoc for the Carter family, and unless Chris collects the golden rings mentioned in the song in three days’ time, he’ll become one of those porcelain figurines too.
So the entire clan rallies around him to secure the rings, and they have tiresome problems of their own that Pepper and her rampaging menagerie from the display will exacerbate. Wife Carol (Tracee Ellis Ross), for example, is up for a promotion at work, but will have to prove her skill at management while fowl intervene in her job interview. Older daughter Joy (Genneya Walton) wants to go to Notre Dame rather than Chris’s alma mater USC (which she deems too close to home), but has to contend with ten leaping lords during the track meet where scouts are watching. Son Nick (Thaddeus J. Mixson) is lying about failing math (Stephen Tobolowsky has a cameo as his flustered teacher—it’s apparently uncredited, lucky him) and, in one of the most overused clichés in movies today, only wants to be a musician, writing stuff on his computer and practicing the instrument he loves—the tuba. A maid-a-milking will crash his dream.
Pip, Gary and Cordelia also get involved as allies when Chris steals them from Pepper’s shop and they do their diminutive best to help, and perhaps be freed from the elf’s curse. Everything is sorted out during the big El Segundo Christmas parade, at which multiple dumb last-minutecomplications are introduced and the real Santa (David Alan Grier) makes an unexpected appearance.
Under Reginald Hudlin’s uninspired direction, the film goes increasingly bonkers yet manages to be simultaneously manic and leaden, striving desperately to be hilarious and feel enchanting but failing miserably at both. Murphy, however, serves as an oasis of calm in the maelstrom, only occasionally resorting to his over-the-top shtick. Bell makes up for his moderation with a ferocity that beggars description. Among the rest of the Carver family, no one especially stands out, but Marino is his usual broad-as-the-devil self, while Offerman does an avuncular Dickensian riff that’s meant to be lovable but isn’t. Still, he’s a positive joy compared to Redd, whose lascivious lamplighter Gary, always trying to hit on Carol, is irritating on his first appearance and becomes more so as the picture careens on; Thede is voluble, too, but beside him is far less annoying.
Periodically the script tears itself away from the Carvers to focus on the mismatched pair broadcasting news of the neighborhood contest on television—zany, excitable Kit (Danielle Pinnock) and gloomily serious Emerson (Timothy Simons), who’s appalled when his co-anchor introduces her neophyte nephew Josh (D.C. Young Fly) as a roving correspondent. It’s a running gag that should have been run off the screen long before eggs start raining down from the sky and Josh runs for cover.
Considerable effort has been expended on the look of the film by production designer Aaron Osborne, costume designer Sharen Davis and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel as well as the effects team—more, certainly, than the material deserves. Composer Marcus Miller aims to make matters jaunty, but it’s a losing battle, while editors Kenny G. Krauss and Jim May struggle to wrestle the disjointed action into reasonable shape. They do not succeed.
One can respect the desire of those who makes movies like this to provide families with a bit of holiday cheer. It’s sad indeed when all they come up with, as in the present case, is a lump of shiny cinematic coal.