Christmas movies were once so popular in Hollywood because they offered audiences a heaping helping of ready-made sentiment on which the industry’s dream machine found it easy to build. Judging by such lamentable recent examples as Bad Santa and the various Santa Clause movies, this is no longer true. Nowadays, Christmas is just a junk box of discarded iconography out of which routine and downright bad comedies find the wherewithal to play dress-up. And they don’t come much more downright bad than Deck the Halls, directed by John Whitesell from a script by multiple authors. So feeble is its comedy — and so gratuitous its connection with Christmas — that it should have been called “Dreck the Halls.”
Optometrist Steve Finch (Matthew Broderick) considers himself “the Christmas guy” in his small town in Massachusetts. He is supposed to have invented a whole series of “family traditions” about the holiday for his long-suffering wife, Kelly (Kristin Davis), and two kids because he himself never had any when he was growing up as a peripatetic military brat. Then, not long before Christmas, the raffish Buddy Hall (Danny DeVito) and his family move in next door, and Buddy, looking for some purpose in his life — “something big, something important, something monumental” — decides he has found it in the attempt to make a Christmas light-display so bright that it can be seen from outer space.
The idea sounded promising to me. Here, I thought, was a natural scenario for a gentle satire on the secularization of Christmas, the oxymoronic competition in display of the festive spirit, the mindlessness and tastelessness of the celebrity culture’s quest for that legendary 15 minutes of fame — and, of course, of our neglect of the true meaning of Christmas. But I was wrong. The true meaning of Christmas is as much a closed book to the film-makers as it is to Buddy. Or, for that matter, Steve, who is nothing but the sort of fastidious nerd that Matthew Broderick always plays and no more genuinely concerned with the Christmas spirit than his rival. The movie takes Buddy’s megalomaniacal light display at face value, and he comes in for criticism only for neglecting his family on its account.
Even apart from this failure, it is a graveyard for comic ideas, as one would-be wacky gag after another is introduced only to be abandoned.
* A cross dressing Sheriff (Garry Chalk), makes a brief appearance and then disappears.
* Buddy is said to be so great a salesman that he can sell a car to the owner of the dealership where he works and make him pay the sticker price. But that’s all there is to be said about Buddy’s salesmanship.
* Kelly is supposed to be a bad cook and the author of unpublishable cookbooks who finally breaks into print with the help of Buddy’s wife, Tia (Kristin Chenoweth), a free spirit and former nude model. I hope you find this bare statement of a situation funny, for that’s all there is to it.
* Steve’s precocious son, Carter (Dylan Blue), is said to be “a ten year old with a mid-life crisis,” but apart from one line — “My life isn’t working out as I planned” — nothing more is said about that either.
* Steve’s teenage daughter, Madison (Alia Shawkat), takes in hand Buddy’s twin daughters (Sabrina and Kelly Aldridge), who are well on their way to bimbo-hood, and teaches them (off-screen) to appreciate Emily Dickinson. The entire comic potential of this situation comes down to the single line by one of the bimbettes, “Maybe I should go to law school or something.” You’d think that one of the film’s three writers could at least have thought of a better one-liner.
* The twins, in turn, take the dorky Madison in hand and teach her to do a sexy dance with them that has Steve, completely out of character, cat-calling “Who’s your daddy?” in the moment before he realizes that he’s her daddy. He and Buddy are then shown washing their eyes in holy water from the font in an anonymous church. Hi-larious! But that’s all for Madison and the bimbettes.
Buddy is represented as being so literal-minded that he professes not to understand when Steve comes out as he is working on his display in the middle of the night and asks: “Do you know what time it is?”
“Why?” he asks. “Aren’t there any clocks in your house?”
“I was being sarcastic,” Steve explains.
“I got to warn you,” says Buddy in a friendly way, “stuff like that goes right over my head.” But of course this is the last we hear of Buddy’s literal-mindedness, whether it is assumed or real.
Here, the joke is not a great one either, particularly as Buddy is also supposed to be a super-salesman, yet it might have had possibilities if the film-makers had stuck with it. But they have the same problem we are told Buddy has, of not being able to stick with anything. It’s this quality that also gives rise to a typically abortive attempt to be inspirational in something of the way of the old-fashioned Christmas movie. “All my life I have been looking for that one important thing,” says Buddy. Ahh! Poor Buddy. Now, he thinks he has found that one important thing in making his house light up so that it is visible from outer space.
Will he succeed and so achieve his life’s fulfilment? You guess. But you’ve also got to wonder if the inclusion in Deck the Halls of clips from tear-jerking Christmas scenes out of such classic films as Meet Me in St. Louis and Miracle on 34th Street indicates that the film-makers imagine Buddy’s quest for illuminative glory should be seen as similarly heart-tugging — and, if so, if this Christmas movie represents a new low in Hollywood nincompoopery.