“Oh, dear God, this should be outlawed,” Nora Krank (Jamie Lee Curtis) says at one point in “Christmas With the Kranks.” Though she’s talking about something else, her remark applies perfectly well to Joe Roth’s movie, adapted by Chris Columbus from a story by John Grisham. The title of the original book was “Skipping Christmas,” and, given the shocking awfulness of the picture based on it, those words would also describe the most reasonable course of action to take toward the picture–just put quotation marks around ‘Christmas’ and be done with it.
The tale is apparently intended as a sort of modern take on “A Christmas Carol,” with Tim Allen taking on the Scrooge-like role as Luther Krank, a Chicago office worker who gets the bright idea of forgoing Yuletude festivities in favor of a Caribbean cruise after his daughter Blair (Julie Gonzalo) goes off to join the Peace Corps. Nora (Curtis), his dim-bulb of a wife, reluctantly goes along with her hubby’s plan, but the couple’s refusal to participate in their suburban block’s usual round of decorating and partying earns them the ire of their neighbors, most notably officious Vic Frohmeyer (Dan Aykroyd) and his unruly son Spike (Erik Per Sullivan) and Walt Scheel (M. Emmet Walsh), the cranky old man who lives across the road with his sweet-natured wife Bev (Elizabeth Franz). But after infuriating everyone with their supposed selfishness, Luther and Nora learn on December 23 that Blair is not only returning for the holiday–expecting her parents to be holding their famous block party on Christmas Eve–but is bringing home a fiancé to boot. The Kranks must scramble to decorate and prepare a big feast, something that proves utterly impossible until all the neighbors, as well as the two beat cops (Cheech Martin and Jake Busey, of all people), pitch in. In the process, of course, Luther learns the real meaning of Christmas, finally even making a generous gesture of reconciliation toward the ill-tempered Walt.
It’s difficult to imagine that even with the best handling, this feeble scenario could have been worked into a joyous holiday entertainment; but here the execution is anything but merry. Columbus’ script is loaded with contrivances and feeble dialogue, and Roth’s direction has all the lightness of a sledgehammer blow. Under his heavy hand Allen and Curtis bellow and shriek their lines while plowing through their alternately slapstick and saccharine routines. (She fares especially poorly, since Nora is written as such an utterly witless dolt.) Aykroyd does his stentorian shtick without the slightest variation, and the rest of the supporting cast–including frail-looking Austin Pendleton as a party guest the revelation of whose identity is supposed to serve as a warm-hearted final revelation but merely seems an arbitrary twist–come off seeming desperate. The picture looks dreadful, too. Though it’s supposed to be set in Illinois in the dead of winter, it appears to have been shot in California during a summer heatwave, with rain replacing the frozen sort of precipitation and piles of phony snow strategically positioned in a vain attempt to simulate the pretended location. Needless to say, it doesn’t help to have the characters wear heavy garb in the outdoor scenes, not only because it’s an on-and-off effort, but there’s no sign of breath coming from people’s mouths as they shout their dreary dialogue. (Under the circumstances, having Luther ice over his sidewalk with a hose to ward off carolers is more than a little incredible–and suggesting that he freezes the Scheels’ cat by the same mechanism results in a sight gag that you’re more likely to choke on than laugh at.) Even the cinematography is terrible: Don Burgess, whose work is usually first-rate, flips his lenses so clumsily to focus in on foreground and background that you half-expect the visual sloppiness is intended as a joke, except for the fact that there’s nothing funny about it. And John Debney’s music is no less overbearing, rivaling Allen and Aykroyd in volume and Curtis in shrillness.
But at least the advertising tagline for “Christmas With the Kranks” is honest. It’s “Ho Ho No,” which can be translated as either “Zero Laughs” or–perhaps even more appropriately–“Don’t Go.” There hasn’t been a more depressing holiday movie since “Mixed Nuts.”