‘Christmas With the Kranks’ says it’s the most wonderful time of the year, dammit

The 2004 comedy is an uneven mess, but it absolutely nails the incessant holiday zeal

Welcome to The 12¬†Ways of Christmas, where we unpack weird and overlooked holiday films. Because let’s face it: the blog roll could use the attention.¬†With little rhyme or reason, check in from now until The Day That Must Not Be Named for a new entry in our series. And while you’re at it, look back at last year’s entries, too.

I’m sitting in my parents’ kitchen and the radio is blaring the expected blend of contemporary pop Christmas covers. Today’s the day after Thanksgiving and every year, I can’t help but feel like this shit is starting earlier and earlier. The encroaching Christmas season has me perpetually feeling like I’m on the outside of some genteel neighborhood cabal dedicated to gingerbread, decorative lights and Mariah Carey CDs. (Conveniently ignore that I’m starting up a Christmas-themed blog-thing in late November.)

I know I’m not alone. Christmas with the Kranks has that sycophantic holiday ubiquity in spades and its patriarch, Luther Krank (Tim Allen), finally decides he’s had enough of the yuletide crap. After a particularly crummy trip to the market — to pick up white chocolate, no less — Luther convinces his simpleton wife Nora (Jamie Lee Curtis) that with their daughter (Julie Gonzalo) off with the peace corps for Christmas, the two would save money and stress if they abandoned their hickory honey ham and took a Caribbean cruise.

From the opening glimpses of its soul-sucking neighborhood, the prospect of leaving the Kranks’ hovel of banality behind sounds wonderful. Their small Illinois community is stale, with a cloying quaintness to mom and pop shops and an overly chummy atmosphere that’s almost condescending. Kranks‘ home encourages an inside-the-box way of thinking, where “There’s no place like home for the holidays” becomes a reality through rigid traditions and the same expected small talk; even the Kranks can’t escape it, as evidenced by the Hawaiian shirts Luther plans to bring with. And when the rest of the neighborhood catches wind that the Kranks’ annual Christmas Eve party is getting nixed this year, the neighbors push back. The lights! Don’t forget to buy a tree from the local scout troop! And everyone remember to affix your eight-foot fucking tall snowmen to your roofs before Friday!

Not unlike the disposable holiday mix on your local stations right now, there’s a toxic enthusiasm to Kranks, bottled rather spectacularly through Dan Aykroyd’s passive-aggressive Vic Frohmeyer. As the neighborhood’s unofficial patron saint of Christmas, Aykroyd channels an offshoot brand of SNL‘s recurring “Bill Swerski’s Superfans” sketch, except the only team he’s playing for is some idealized version of defending the holiday spirit against those gosh durn dissenters. It’s almost too much. Beyond Aykroyd and the chintzy Thomas Kincaide town, the town’s denizens are depressingly bland. As a formless suburban mass, they’re terrifying. But one-on-one, the Kranks’ neighbors come and go with their one-joke premises or give Tim Allen someone to bounce his hapless dad shtick off of. If only some strange third-act twist revealed Aykroyd as the lead cyborg in a town full of bland drones ready to push their world-dominating Christmas agenda on any living, breathing remnants, I would buy it.

Alas, screenwriter Chris Columbus (who’s already nailed that getaway feeling twice with Home Alone) and director Joe Roth can’t figure out the best way to adapt SKipping Christmas. Maybe they’re getting hung up on the fact that John Grisham wrote a Christmas comedy? When the Kranks’ daughter calls to surprise Luther and Nora with a return visit on Christmas Eve, there’s a scramble to reconstruct everything just the way it was, back to when the couple weren’t sad empty nesters. Christmas with the Kranks throws everything against the wall to do it. It wants to bite but its fangs are dull. It wants to be a Tim Allen vehicle when Tim Allen has a few pratfalls and a lot of grousing. It wants shoe-gazey punk covers of Christmas favorites as much as it wants lip service to the possibility that Santa Claus might actually be real. Everybody panics in the last half hour, and I’m not just talking about the neighborhood.