For every “It’s A Wonderful Life,” there are two dozen lesser Christmas-inspired creations: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Jingle All the Way” and Tim Allen’s “The Santa Clause” franchise, to name a couple.
“Deck the Halls” is just one of several Christmas films hitting theaters this year, and while it comes decked out in bright lights, no amount of trimming can hide its lack of originality.
Matthew Broderick plays optometrist Steve Finch, a sweater-wearing suburban family man who’s nuts about Christmas and married to Kelly (Kristin Davis). Broderick, a straight man for the ages, is thrown off his wave of yuletide adulation when car salesman Buddy Hall (Danny DeVito) and his family move in next door.
Buddy, married to Tia (Kristin Chenoweth), quickly becomes obsessed with making his house visible from space, covering it with Christmas lights and forming a live-animal nativity scene on his front lawn. Needless to say, this upsets the anal Finch.
“Around here, I’m the Christmas guy,” he explains to Buddy, who retorts: “You can take Toejam Day.”
The two quickly become rivals, while the wives hit it off — why do the wives always hit it off? — as their facing houses devolve into a battleground for a war not on, but about, Christmas.
The comedic talents of Broderick and DeVito are too considerable for “Deck the Halls” to pass without some legitimately funny scenes. In the movie’s finest joke, Finch watches his new neighbor’s moving truck pull in at midnight.
“Who moves in the middle of the night? A meth lab?” Finch wonders.
Likewise, Broderick reveals the previously unseen humor in speed skating posture: perched in an orange body suit at the starting line, his front skate on its toe and both arms held behind.
In one moment of friendship, Broderick and DeVito catcall a trio of dancing Santa’s helpers, only to be shocked to see it’s their daughters.
“Who’s your daddy? Who’s your daddy?” shouts Broderick. “Oh my God, I’m your daddy!”
But the sin of “Deck the Halls” is its regifting. The humor inherent in a man focused on covering his house with Christmas lights has already been memorably put to film in 1989’s “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”
And it’s disappointing to see Broderick and DeVito try to make mediocre material work. (If you doubt DeVito still has it, watch him in the hysterical FX series “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”)
Eventually, “Deck the Halls” pushes a message that Christmas could use some updating — some new traditions — be it Buddy’s LED projection lights, or Christmas carols lit by opened cell phones.
But new technology isn’t enough to create a new tradition, which all the best holiday films eventually become. At least this holiday season, it might be best to stick with an old standby like “Christmas Vacation.”