Christmas has so far been a bust at the multiplexes. Ben Affleck’s “Surviving Christmas” opened in October and barely survived Halloween. Tom Hanks’ “The Polar Express,” despite $170 million worth of eye-popping visual effects, had a disappointing Nov. 10 opening. Maybe it’s just too early for Santa Claus fables.
Joe Roth’s “Christmas With the Kranks” at least has the seasonal decency to wait until Thanksgiving weekend to arrive. The former Disney studio chief, who sometimes directs his own productions (“America’s Sweethearts,” “Coupe de Ville”), is back in the director’s chair with this very broad, occasionally grotesque slapstick comedy about an Illinois suburban couple who decide to skip Christmas by going on a tropical vacation.
It’s based on a John Grisham novel, “Skipping Christmas,” although the screenplay by Chris Columbus suggests a rehash of Columbus’ previous Christmas comedies, especially the “Home Alone” series and the unspeakable “Jingle All the Way.”
After about an hour of forced comedy, it suddenly transforms itself into standard holiday treacle about the true meaning of Christmas. Even Santa Claus makes an appearance. So does Frosty the Snowman, in a creepy kind of way. And snow begins to fall on cue on Christmas Eve. Does it happen any other way in Illinois?
As “Christmas With the Kranks” opens, Luther Krank (Tim Allen) and his wife Nora (Jamie Lee Curtis) have just seen their daughter Blair off at the airport. She’s joined the Peace Corps in South America, and for the first time in 23 years the Kranks won’t be spending the holidays with their only child.
Luther comes up with the idea of going elsewhere for Christmas, but he isn’t smart enough to clear out of town well before Dec. 25. As a result, he gets guilt-tripped into a series of confrontations over his decisions not to buy a Christmas tree, light up his house or pay the repair bills on ornaments. Ostracized at the office and by his neighbors, he’s forced to wonder if his impulsive bid for non-conformity is worth the trouble.
The impact of holiday peer pressure on a wandering adult could have been the subject of a great comedy, and there are moments when the actors do tap into the absurdities of their situation. Allen and Curtis make the pressures on the Kranks’ relationship quite credible, especially when a third-act surprise forces them into improvising a turnaround in their holiday plans. And the image of Christmas carolers appearing at the Kranks’ windows like zombies from “Night of the Living Dead” is surprisingly spooky.
Dan Aykroyd and M. Emmet Walsh, as the Kranks’ pushiest neighbors, do their diabolical best to suggest the depth of those pressures. Austin Pendleton is hilarious as a cheery party-crasher no one can identify, and Tom Poston is quite droll as a priest who fears the Kranks have lost their faith.
But for every insight into holiday madness, there’s a pointless episode about Allen taking a botox treatment or Curtis trying out a tanning machine. For all its occasional subversive charms, “Christmas With the Kranks” leaves you wondering: where is this year’s “Bad Santa”?