Grade: C-

Ice Cube’s “Friday” movies are hardly works of art–they’re just ramshackle assemblages of gags that work only sporadically, the acting is of vaudeville quality, and the direction is virtually nonexistent. Still, they can be funny, and their success proves that there’s an audience out there for this sort of thing.

Those viewers will probably howl over “Friday After Next,” the third installment in the series (the first appeared in 1994, the sequel in 2000). The hook is that the setting is Christmas Eve, which gives Cube the opportunity to include a lot of action involving a housebreaker who conceals himself in a Santa Claus suit, and whose pursuit leads to a big chase finale. Otherwise, however, the formula is much the same as in the previous pictures. Cube and Mike Epps play hapless buddies Craig and Day-Day, a sort of black Abbott and Costello. After their apartment is ripped off by the holiday robber, they’re forced to take jobs as security guards at a strip mall where their fathers, Mr. Jones (John Witherspoon) and Uncle Elroy (Don “D.C.” Curry) run a barbeque joint (the commercial for the place is one of the best bits in the movie). There they also run into the mall owner, a sleazy doughnut shop operator named Moly (Maz Jobrani); a pint-sized entrepreneur called Money Mike (Katt Williams), who dresses like a pimp; and Money’s svelte clerk Donna (K.D. Aubert). At home, meanwhile, the boys are harangued by their rent-seeking landlady (BeBe Drake) and her huge, ex-con (and gay) son Damon (Terry Crews). There are scads of ancillary characters too, including a couple of Keystone Kops and a few of the boys’ old friends. All of them bounce around in combinations that lead to lots of comic violence and grossness and–on rare occasions–some genuinely funny moments.

Generally speaking, the best parts of “Friday After Next” occur in the first half. There’s an animated title sequence, for instance, that seems copied on the old “Pink Panther” intros, and though it doesn’t match the exemplars it’s good-natured and amusing. Quite a few of the jokes to the halfway point hit their mark, and they’re sufficiently plentiful to make one forgive the ones that don’t. Unfortunately, things go decidedly downhill after that. The gags get more frenzied and nasty, the level of distastefulness increases, and the likableness quotient plummets. It’s not a matter of the inspiration collapsing, exactly, since one could hardly refer to the earlier part of the flick as inspired; it’s merely that the good-natured goofiness one’s come to expect degenerates into mean-spiritedness.

Still, the cast certainly gives it plenty of energy. Ice Cube is content to play straight man, which he does adequately, giving Epps, Witherspoon, Curry, Drake and especially Williams free rein to mug mercilessly. Marcus Raboy, a first-timer who’s previously helmed some music videos, is listed as director, but it’s hard to believe that the job involved much more than setting up the camera and shouting “Go!”

So the picture is a mixed bag: there are a few cheerful presents in it, but more lumps of coal; and some of it is ho-ho-horrible.