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Nothing Under the Tree

In 'Christmas With the Kranks,' a Lump of Coal That Lands Off-Target

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 24, 2004; Page C12

"Christmas With the Kranks" is a leaden whimsy so heavy it threatens to crash through the multiplex floor.

Derived from a best-selling but critically despised novel by John Grisham, it documents the calumny that accompanies the decision of a couple to skip Christmas one year and instead take a cruise around the islands. And why shouldn't they? Their only child is in the Peace Corps in Peru, they've labored long and hard in building comfortable, stable lives, paying taxes, contributing to charity, mowing the lawn. There seem to be no stultified family structures to keep them in place singing carols and sucking down bourbon-laced punch. Kids, enjoy; you've earned it.

Jamie Lee Curtis, Tim Allen, Rene Lavan and Julie Gonzalo, having a very little Christmas. (Zade Rosenthal -- Columbia Pictures)

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Bad decision, Mr. and Mrs. Krank. You forgot to count on the fascistic conformism of your fellow Americans. You forgot to figure on the insidious and wrathful pressures your friends and neighbors would bring to bear on you for your apostate behavior. Why, consider yourself lucky not to end up on stakes, frying in the night as Puritans dance about shrieking to drive away your witch-spirits.

The original Grisham novel ("Skipping Christmas") was allegedly a broad satire of the pressures of commercial Christmas within society and while I haven't read it, won't read it, and want never to hear about it again, I can see the appeal. The weight of the season is grotesque and it squashes many.

But the signal problem with "Christmas With the Kranks" is that ham-handed director Joe Roth (a distinguished producer with an iffy record as an occasional director) doesn't have the skills to evoke the nuances of satire. Thus the movie, which is meant to be a carefully designated exaggeration, plays literally as conventional drama and seems like a heartfelt endorsement of the cruel sentiments it means to mock.

The cast is hopelessly adrift. Tim Allen plays Luther Krank, an accountant. At first his decision to skip Christmas seems quite casual, but as opposition to it mounts on all fronts he turns didactic and unpleasant. In other words, his character never makes any sense. There's no suggestion that he's harbored a grudge against Christmas, is haunted by ugly memories or anything that might justify the completely sanctimonious creature he becomes -- one who announces grandly to co-workers that he won't be taking part in the workplace gift-giving transaction and who refuses to decorate his house and ices the sidewalk so that the carolers all fall-down-go-boom. Poor Allen, left with nothing that computes, resorts to endless mugging for the camera. His face is as busy as a fire drill in a sex clinic, and the elementary comic scheme of the movie requires him to stumble, bumble, crash and crumble all over the place. Didn't the comic pratfall go out when Chevy Chase quit "Saturday Night Live"?

Jamie Lee Curtis, playing his wife, whines a lot.

You can see where it's going from the previews. No one is officially allowed to hate Christmas in entertainment culture, so of course a big reversal, very much like Scrooge's, is mandated. And, ho hum, it comes upon a Christmas clear, trailing treacly bonhomie and fake cheer. Ugh.

Everyone in the film is mean-spirited, manipulative and repulsive, and I'm only talking about the women! The men are much worse, particularly Dan Aykroyd as a venal self-appointed community leader who leads a campaign, including physical intimidation, against the Kranks. What America is this? Haven't the filmmakers ever walked down neighborhood streets where Catholics and Jews and Hindus and Presbyterians -- well, not Presbyterians -- live next to each other, without rancor or anguish over the differing holiday traditions? In fact, in its distance from today's reality, "Christmas With the Kranks" feels set in the vise of the '50s, when you toed the line or you went on the list.

Christmas With the Kranks (105 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for slapstick violence and brief suggestions of sexual activity.

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