When you look at Christmas movies being shown on television, they seem to fall under three categories. First, you have the old standbys, the classics that have stood the test of time, such as Miracle on 34th Street, or more recently, A Christmas Story. Second, you have the dross, the Lifetime & Hallmark specials that are churned out by the score, and are usually pure saccharin (and often just a bland romance movie with a Santa hat stuck on it). They usually have titles like A Girlfriend For Christmas. And third, you have the Christmas movies from the last five years. There’s always at least one Christmas movie released each year, and the networks will try to milk them for advertising dollars for a few years after their theatrical debut. But no further than that; if something didn’t make a big impact, it doesn’t seem to be aired by anybody after it’s more than half a decade old. There doesn’t appear to be any room for the concept of a “cult classic Christmas movie”.
So if 2006’s Deck the Halls is going to find an audience, it may be now or never for the Danny DeVito / Matthew Broderick film.
Broderick plays Steve Finch, small town optometrist, and well-respected in the town. He has a guiding hand in the “Winter Festival” the town holds every year, with the decorators consulting him on their plans; he advises them to go easy on the lights so as not to be too gaudy… foreshadowing! Unsubtle foreshadowing! His wife, Kelly (Kristin Davis) is a cookbook editor, but not very successful at selling them. His daughter Madison (Alia Shawkat) is a moody teenager, and his son Carter (Dylan Blue) is “a ten-year-old going through a mid-life crisis”. Steve thinks what they need is a little Christmas spirit… but though his heart’s in the right place, he’s not really the guy to do it. Since he missed out on a lot of Christmas traditions growing up moving from army base to army base, he’s determined his kids won’t miss out on any — by ruthlessly scheduling everything. Broderick is mildly convincing as a man who has forgotten that the key to fun is spontaneity, but it’s just a little hard to see the still-fairly-young-looking Broderick and not think of the freewheeling Ferris Bueller. We expect a bit more life out of him for this performance than is actually given, and when the comedic antics begin, the film suffers some from this expectation.
Here’s our Christmas calendar! I’ve scheduled genuine enjoyment for 3:00 on Saturday.
Finch’s life is soon disrupted by the arrival of his new neighbors, the Halls. His wife immediately bonds with Tia (Kristin Chenoweth), and his daughter with the Halls’ twin girls, Ashley and Emily (Kelly & Sabrina Aldridge). The problem for Steve, however, is the man of the house, Buddy (DeVito). Buddy is a gifted salesman (he sells the owner of his dealership one of his own cars), but he’s always been dissatisfied with his life, drifting from job to job. He wants to be remembered for something, to have done something monumental. When his daughters show him satellite photos of their area, he sets his mind on a goal — he wants his Christmas lights to be visible from space.
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…
This sets off the conflict between Buddy and Steve; Buddy wants bigger and brighter displays, Steve just wants a quiet neighborhood and the ability to sleep at night. And both act like jerks in the pursuit of their goals. Neither is a sympathetic protagonist, and unfortunately, neither is particularly funny either. DeVito appears to be going for a Belushi-type character for most of it, but at least in this film he doesn’t have the charisma necessary to play that role and still be endearing the way Belushi did (in fact, initially I thought the whole Hall family would be like the family in Neighbors (*), but this trend was thankfully dropped after the first few minutes). While there are some wacky antics that result from the two sparring with each other, neither of the lead characters seems to have enough personality to make us want to root for them in this battle, and most everybody else is just window dressing (though Dylan Blue, who plays Broderick’s son, actually makes his character seem like a real 10-year-old kid.)
Remember, you’re supposed to throw the snowball at the small deformed humanoids that aren’t wearing a Santa hat.
It doesn’t help that the wacky antics have a feeling of familiarity to them. They shouldn’t in most cases, as some of the gags are genuinely unique to the film, but the overall tone is a feeling that it was trying to ape Christmas Vacation and falling short. One repeated gag in particular feels this way (the fate of the Christmas trees), but most especially the very premise of the film. My brother has been calling over-decorating “channeling his inner Griswold” for years, and I highly doubt he’s the only one who remembers Chevy Chase’s brightly lit house from that film. Deck the Halls would inevitably draw comparisons to Christmas Vacation, so it really needed to pile on the laughs in order to get a favorable reception from people. Unfortunately, it simply lacks the energy of that earlier film.
However, I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was a truly bad film. There are some laughs in it, and it’s inoffensive and certainly relatable. It didn’t out-and-out bore me. It’s just kind of tepid, as comedies go. I could see a lot of the potential of this film, but little of it was actualized; I kept thinking Broderick and DeVito could have been funnier, that the gags could have had more punch. I don’t mind having seen this film, but I can’t say that I’d watch it again.
(*) Yes, I know it was Aykroyd who played the obnoxious one in that film, but the part was written for Belushi.