For fans of taste and restraint, Christmas grows a little more dreadful each year. Disappointed with Thanksgiving's inability to adequately move product, retailers have eliminated any downtime between Halloween and the holiday season. Escaping to the movies hardly helps when each year adds to the ever-multiplying mass of seasonal fare trumpeting the same nebulous, tastefully secular, usually pratfall-inducing cosmic force called the Christmas Spirit. It makes it that much easier to appreciate the occasional blast of acid like last year's Bad Santa, and all the harder not to pelt the screen with rotten fruit when confronted with a film like Christmas With The Kranks.
Adapted from a novel by John Grisham—one of his occasional efforts that isn't about an idealistic young attorney forced to confront a corrupt system—Kranks pretends to be about the way holidays force a kind of mass psychosis of mandatory good spirits, but ultimately becomes just another product of that psychosis. The film folds neatly in half: In the first, an office drone (Tim Allen, still doing that Tim Allen shtick) and his wife (a distressingly frumped-up Jamie Lee Curtis) see their daughter off to a Peace Corps stint, then decide to avoid the holidays on a Caribbean cruise. Outraged, Allen and Curtis' neighbors begin a harassment campaign, protesting their refusal to decorate and celebrate with rude phone calls, public scorn, and a front-page article in the local newspaper. (All of which raises the question of how they treat, say, Jews.) In the second half, the daughter announces her unexpected return, forcing Allen and Curtis to repent and duke it out over the last canned ham as their neighbors scramble to help them hide the shameful secret that they came this close to ignoring the holiday.
In one capacity or another, writer-producer Chris Columbus has made this movie twice before, having previously explored Christmas' chaotic potential with the mean-spirited family favorite Home Alone and his screenplay for the brilliant Gremlins. Working from a Columbus script, director and studio head Joe Roth ensures a pattern of diminishing returns with an undistinguished slapstick-and-saccharine approach, letting Allen freeze his face for a belabored Botox gag, then dewing him up as he addresses a cancer-stricken neighbor. The film feels as cynical as a sales ploy, and it centers on more than a bit of bait-and-switch. Christmas With The Kranks makes a few feints toward satire, then surrenders to schmaltz, establishing Allen and Curtis' neighbors as Christmas-obsessed pod people, then cheering as the Kranks surrender to the same madness. This isn't a wonderful life: It looks pretty hellish.