It makes sense that the late Robin Williams gravitated toward darker comedies later in his career, especially after years of family antics. So credit the adventurousness that got him into Death To Smoochy and World’s Greatest Dad as his possible reason for playing (comedy-name alert) Mitch Mitchler, bad dad to Boyd Mitchler (Joel McHale), in A Merry Friggin’ Christmas. Like another of his late-period dark comedies, The Angriest Man In Brooklyn, Christmas condescends (intentionally or not) to Williams’ reputation as a wild comic by giving him would-be edgy material that flaunts some imaginary rules of political correctness. Mitch has an irascible love of smoking, guns, and meat, and he’s not afraid to speak his mind about it. He’s also a recovering alcoholic and, from what little the movie shows in flashback, may well suffer from undiagnosed depression. Drunk on Christmas morning when Boyd is 5 years old, he tells him that there is no Santa Claus and, further, that life is a meaningless slog.
Boyd, then, grows up determined to be a better father to his children, with a particular mania that his young son Douglas (Pierce Gagnon, from Looper and Wish I Was Here) will keep the faith in Santa Claus for as long as possible. (One of McHale’s few funny lines, overcompensating for the question of whether Santa is real: “Everyone’s real, including Santa.”) When circumstances and guilt conspire to drag Boyd and his family to his parents’ home for the holidays, Douglas’ big Santa present gets left behind, and soon—though not especially quickly—Boyd and Mitch are on a largely uneventful mismatched-buddy road trip back to retrieve it. Oliver Platt turns up, imparting both the spirit of Christmas and the spirit of disappointing movies with good actors.
The actors aren’t the only ones with impressive careers: Director Tristram Shapeero has worked on comedies like Peep Show in his native England and American favorites like Parks And Recreation, Community, Happy Endings, and New Girl. Christmas occasionally flashes the kind of character-specific weirdness that might play on one of those shows, like the way Boyd’s nephew (Ryan Lee) preens over his triumphs as a competitive eater, or the unflappable simplemindedness of Boyd’s brother-in-law (Tim Heidecker). Mostly, though, it plays like the kind of sitcom Shapeero hasn’t had to direct because they’ve become largely outmoded—a stagy production where a comic car chase is clearly shot without any of the actors in moving vehicles. Shows like New Girl or Community sometimes use quick cuts for fast-paced reaction shots; A Merry Friggin’ Christmas cuts around aimlessly in search of them.
Instead of bringing together a fractured family, the movie stays diffuse. Though professional comedy wife Lauren Graham has an unforced ease with her on-screen spouse McHale, the Mitchlers generally don’t register as a unit, even an estranged one, because most of their foibles are written with such a heavy hand. Mom (Candice Bergen) talks mostly in exposition. Boyd’s brother Nelson (Clark Duke) has suffered the kind of light brain damage that turns people into watered-down Zach Galifianakis routines, predicated on being oblivious to concepts like caller ID. Mitch has his obligatory exasperated outbursts, performed gamely by Williams.
The loss of Williams earlier this year does lend this movie unearned poignancy; it’s just plain nice to see him again. Even doing a thin grumpy-old-man routine, he seems to be having fun biting into a Wisconsin accent that lets him say hurtful things without quite swearing. Williams made some terrible movies, but he never phoned them in. On both counts, this one’s no exception.