Christmas is many things to many people; a time of happiness, a time of reflection, a time to be grateful for what you have. It is a time for a veritable barrage of films which literally cut-and-paste the same plot elements every. single. year. Now, I have absolutely no problem with Christmas, and I like to think I’m quite tolerant when it comes to giving films a chance, but when it comes to Christmas films, I’m a complete Scrooge. Christmas with the Kranks, then, represented something of interest to myself, given the plot is to Christmas what I am to Christmas films.
Luther (Tim Allen) and Nora (Jamie Lee Curtis) decide to use their first Christmas without their daughter at home to escape on a cruise, a deal sweetened by the fact that their trip costs just half of what they normally spend on the holiday season. With these savings in mind, Luther takes the inexplicable and completely unexplained decision to create a self-imposed ban on Christmas for himself and his wife – no decorations, no cards, no Shrek the Halls (presumably). If Luther’s move to completely veto Christmas seems odd and extreme at first, it appears nothing short of suicidal when it becomes apparent that Christmas with the Kranks is set in a nightmarish parallel universe where the ritual of putting up Christmas decorations is enforced by a sort of neighbourhood-watch Gestapo.
Comparing decorating the street for Christmas with Nazi Germany may seem excessive, but Christmas with the Kranks really must be seen to be believed. Suspension of disbelief is not an option here. The neighbours spy, guilt trip, and intimidate, and the Kranks even make the front page of their local paper for skipping Christmas, but still they stick to it. In fact, Luther is so steadfast in his Christmas boycott that he refuses to make any charitable donations, and makes ice all over his driveway so he can stop the postman getting to the door (how dare he try to do his job?). Naturally, by the end of the film he has seen the error of his ways, but not before convincing the viewer that he’s a miserly, risible character.
If it’s not enough that the entire plot centres around an entirely avoidable situation (the Kranks are saving money by going on the cruise, not spending more, which would have been more understandable), essentially all the jokes and set-pieces do as well. One lengthy sequence has Nora and Luther crawling around on their hands and knees to try to avoid being seen by carollers. It’s never explained why they’re so desperate to get to the front of the house and thus as close to the people they’re trying to avoid as they can, rather than just going to the back of the house. In another scene, Luther appears having had Botox. Again, no reasoning is given as to why, other than a cheap visual gag, and it completely defeats the point of trying to save money by skipping Christmas. It’s lazy, formulaic stuff.
There are a couple of occasions where Nora believes her husband is propositioning her and ‘readies’ herself, which is not what you expect or want to see in a wholesome family Christmas comedy, particularly when the chemistry between the two leads is best described as slightly creepy. As Nora tells Luther ‘make sure you shut the curtains!’, you’ll be praying they shut the lens cap too. Allen and Curtis are both fine in their roles, but there’s only so much they can do with such a limited script and such unlikable, irritating characters.
Naturally, the film can’t have the Kranks succeeding in their revolutionary war against the police state ruling their street and going on their cruise, as that wouldn’t be Christmassy. Instead, the final hour of the film is dedicated to their efforts to pull off a complete about-face as their daughter announces she will be returning to surprise them for Christmas and expects all her favourite traditions. The two halves of the film contrast so violently (one avoiding Christmas at all costs, one the stock ‘need to get ready for Christmas with very little time’ plot) it feels as though two separate scripts have been forced together to make one whole.
The plot limps through the second half of the film, again relying on the audience not picking up on the various contradictions and frankly implausible situations. Given their relentless harassment campaign of the Kranks to put up their decorations, the Gestapo seem extremely reluctant to give Luther and Nora any help whatsoever and revel in their disorganisation. Christmas must just bring out the bastard in people. Luther is even arrested at one point, one officer (Cheech Marin) sneering ‘shoulda bought a calendar’. The key question the film poses is not ‘will the Kranks manage to avoid Christmas?’ or ‘will they have their party ready in time?’, nor is it about what Christmas ‘means’, but simply, ‘why the hell do they live on this street?’
Written by Matt Clough