As much as I try never to judge a movie by its genre, I find that it’s usually safe to assume that any time a movie is marketed by its studio as a “family comedy,” this will translate as “unmitigated shit.” Toss in a holiday theme and thus the requisite lessons to be learned about the true meaning of Christmas/Hanukkah/Ramadan/Administrative Professionals Day, and the chance that the movie will be a labored, unfunny pile of disingenuous moralizing nears 100 percent. Hire the director responsible for such cinematic abortions as Malibu’s Most Wanted and Big Momma’s House 2 and the screenwriter guilty of scripting both Big Momma’s House films, and its potential for quality drops several digits into the negative zone. Throw in a late-career Danny DeVito, and you’ll be lucky to escape the theater with any remnants of your will to live.
These are the sorry circumstances that have conspired to give us this year’s cinematic equivalent of the unwanted McDonald’s gift certificate, Deck the Halls. In this sad attempt at a movie, DeVito plays Buddy Hall (see, the title is a pun — how witty!), a boorish twit recently relocated with his family — slutty, pneumatic wife Tia (Kristin Chenoweth, best known for her Tony-nominated turn as Glinda the Good Witch in Wicked) and their slutty, inexplicably Amazonian twin daughters Ashley and Emily (Sabrina and Kelly Aldridge from the MTV series “8th & Ocean”) — to quaint Cloverdale, Massachusetts. The trashy Halls rent the house across the street from their social opposites, the uptight Finch family, which consists of optometrist Steven (Matthew Broderick), his cookbook-writer wife Kelly (Kristin Davis from “Sex and the City”), and their children Madison (Alia Shawkat from “Arrested Development,” slumming) and Carter (Dylan Blue). Steven is the kind of Type-A holiday planner who manages to schedule and nitpick all the fun out of his family’s celebration; he breaks out a Christmas-countdown calendar each December 1 and proceeds to ensure that each event is thoroughly regimented, predictable, and tedious, all in the name of maintaining family traditions. Buddy, conversely, lacks Steven’s knack for planning; he has spent his life looking for something important, something “monumental” that would allow him to make his mark in the world, and, idiotic family comedies being what they are, he naturally seizes on the idea of erecting the largest, most ghastly Christmas-light display he can concoct, one that can be seen from space.
What follows is a predictable series of confrontations in which Buddy, as the free-spirited, earthy type, naturally triumphs over the anal-retentive Steven, whose attempts to dominate any given situation inevitably lead to events spiraling out of his control in ways that are supposed to be hilarious but are alternately 1) merely uncomfortable or 2) thoroughly uninteresting. Watch Steven dragged across town in an out-of-control horse-drawn carriage and ultimately dumped into a frozen pond, watch him get covered in shit and then spit on by a camel, watch him speed-skate while wearing a humiliatingly snug skating suit, watch his Christmas trees go up in flames multiple times throughout the movie. None of this is ever funny, and what’s more, we just don’t care. Buddy and Steven are both predictable, paper-thin, totally unlikable stereotypes, and so are just about all the other characters in the film. The only performer here who shows any real energy or charm is Chenoweth, playing a character who comes off as a sanitized version of Amy Sedaris’ Jerri Blank. Maybe it’s just that Chenoweth is relatively underexposed, so that her shtick here seems far fresher from that of the other leads, each of whom is phoning in a role he or she has played a dozen times before. But whatever the reason, she’s the one person onscreen who seems not only to want to be there but to deserve the opportunity.
Aside from her performance, the movie is a combination of the entirely predictable and the pointlessly harebrained. The entire premise that Buddy’s goal is to have his house visible from space, of course, never makes any sense — the goal is to make their house show up on a Google Earth-type satellite system called MyEarth, on which the neighbors’ houses are already visible, yet they apparently have to light their house brighter than the sun to achieve the same, though there is no foliage blocking the view of their house nor any other reason given that it shouldn’t be as visible as other houses in the neighborhood. I can tell you that I’ve searched for my own home on Google Earth, and not only is it visible, but I can see squirrels playing in the gutters clearly enough to give them nicknames.
The family-film genre is supposed to tread that delicate line between being inoffensive enough for the kids and the grandparents while still having a few jokes that appeal to Mom and Dad, but here, as is so often the case, several chunks of the film are all wrong for the little ones — such as the implicit incestuousness when Buddy and Steven get all worked up over sexy dancers who turn out to be their teenaged daughters — while other parts — such as the shit and fart jokes — are such that no self-respecting person of any age should find them amusing. Undoubtedly there will be parents desperate enough for some family-friendly holiday-weekend viewing that Deck the Halls will rake in some dough — audiences have been turning out for dreck like The Santa Clause 3 fer chrissakes — but I’d imagine they’ll wind up feeling like much like Steven: covered in shit, spit on by a camel, and utterly regretting having ever stumbled out their doors.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Deck the Halls / Jeremy C. Fox
Film Reviews | November 24, 2006 | Comments ()