Christmas with the Kranks

(2004) ** Pg
94 min. Columbia Pictures. Director: Joe Roth. Cast: Tim Allen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Dan Aykroyd, Cheech Marin, Jake Busey.

If only in comparison to Surviving Christmas, this slapsticky, haphazard hodgepodge of commentaries on yuletide tradition goes down fairly easy. Comparison to Surviving Christmas is precisely why Columbia changed the name of this Tim Allen vehicle from Skipping Christmas (the title of the John Grisham source novel) to the inelegant Christmas With the Kranks. A Hollywood comedy, by any other name, would still smell like money, and this power package of Allen, Hollywood power-player-turned-director Joe Roth (America's Sweethearts), and screenwriter Chris Columbus (the Harry Potter director whose last screenplay was Nine Months) will surely turn its tricks—I mean, turn a profit.

When Luther and Nora Krank (Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis) see their daughter Blair (Julie Gonzalo) off to her new life in the Peace Corps, their empty-nest syndrome gives Luther an idea. Figuring that last year's Christmas cost him more than $6,000—"with precious little to show for it"—Luther proposes to Nora that they skip Christmas and instead abscond on a Caribbean cruise, banking a profit from their Christmas savings. "It's not about the money," Luther repeats to his suspicious neighbors, a trapped-in-the-'50s mob with Boy's Life crew cuts, plaid jackets, and Radio Flyers who begin to stalk the Kranks in a psychotic attempt to bully them into celebrating the most wonderful time of the year. Curtis gets to spoof her scream-queen image by hugging the walls in fear of Dan Aykroyd's beefy good-cheer Nazi and his de facto army of insistent carolers. For a while, Christmas in the Kranks makes a mildly abrasive satire of America's holiday lockstepping.

Soon enough, Kranks shifts into act-two gear (visiting worst-case-scenario cruelties on the anti-heroic sinners), then act-three gear (showering kindness and backpedaling desperately into toothless humanism). Most of the best lines seem to be ad libs tossed off by Allen ("You know what's odd? When an Irish pub serves fish tacos"), though when Allen tells Curtis, "Five minutes ago I was a genius," she nails her response: "Yeah, well, now you're an idiot." Columbus's script constantly hedges over whether or not Luther is a grinch or a pitiable hero evincing a reasonable plea against materialism and pointless stress. The latter idea--an interesting and appealing one--never intersects with the question of religion; no mention of Jesus or Jews is made in this Chicago 'burb.

Yet, Columbus--a one-time disciple of John Hughes--proves he has not forgotten how to manipulate an audience. The lump-in-the-throat ending (whose careful groundwork has been laid by neighbors Elizabeth Franz and M. Emmett Walsh) is sure-fire. Roth rounds up other familiar faces, like Tom Poston and Austin Pendleton, to punch up successive episodes, but Christmas with the Kranks tries a bit too hard, distracting itself from whatever point it set out to make with extraneous Home Alone pratfalling involving Allen, a cartoon cat burglar and a demoniacal, seven-foot-tall plaster snowman. If you take the kids, you might want to swill a carton of egg nog first.

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