Crank up the schmaltz and mix in a preposterous plot. It’s Christmas Eve and for the next three or four days we’ll be bombarded with movies that give me hives
We have all had the experience of wandering into the wrong bar and immediately realising that unless we leave quickly, something horrid will occur. This happened to me here in Toronto, once in Detroit, twice in Jamaica where every local bar seems to have something bad happening in it, and in Manhattan’s meat packing district. In each case, I sized up the situation fast, realised that my life hung in the balance and beat a hasty retreat.
This is exactly how I feel about Christmas movies.
As soon as I turn on television and the words "John Hughes," "Chevy Chase," "Tim Allen," "Dan Aykroyd" or "based on a novel by John Grisham," pop up, my blood runs cold, my temples throb and I know it is time to switch over to Fat Boy Hackeysack on ESPN2, or an absorbing faux history show such as Ancestors in the Attic, or more bad news from Afghanistan on BBC World, Céline Dion on Ice, or anything else.
Christmas movies have only four plot lines: Cuddly, cloying, cretinous and cute.
It's a Wonderful Life, a story about a small-time banker with a heart of gold, manages to combine all four elements as it inexplicably lionises a mulyak who risks the financial health of his entire community by making a series of bad loans to people who are in no position to repay them. Particularly unsuitable for holiday viewing this year, the 1947 Frank Capra classic should be re-titled It's a Wonderful Subprime Life, with Bernie Madoff in a digitally manipulated cameo appearance.
A Christmas Carol, in any of its myriad manifestations, perpetuates the myth that the obscenely rich can be made to see the error of their ways and rehabilitated even though anyone who has ever dealt with someone obscenely rich knows this is not true.
Miracle on 34th Street, in which a department store Santa goes on trial to prove that Kris Kringle actually exists, has been tugging at heartstrings for so long that everybody’s heartstrings are completely tugged out.
Where Old Stars Die
More recent Christmas movies resemble elephants' graveyards where deposed matinee idols go to die. How sad to see Robert Mitchum, at the tail end of his brilliant career, trading one-liners in Scrooged with a smarmy Bill Murray, before he had learned to act. How distressing to see Jamie Lee Curtis, once the very hottest of the hot, served up as a paunchy sight gag in a skimpy bikini in Christmas With the Kranks. How unsettling to see Robert Duvall in this year's Four Christmases. These are people who used to be stars. Not comedy stars like Will Ferrell or Chevy Chase or Vince Vaughn, but bona fide movie stars. Christmas With the Kranks is so bad that after 20 minutes, I switched from English to French and activated Thai subtitles hoping it would make Aykroyd seem amusing, if only briefly.
Pas de chance.
The kids in Christmas films don't help.
The precocious tyke who rides in Santa's sleigh in The Santa Clause is so overbearing that I keep hoping Dancer and Prancer will leave him behind on an ice floe to get ripped to shreds by polar bears. The moppets in Miracle on 34th Street, Jingle All the Way and Elf make me ask are there no orphanages? Even a film like Home Alone, which was entertaining enough when first released, ultimately becomes impossible to watch. Not only did it lead to Home Alone 2, Home Alone 3 and Daniel Stern's career but because Macaulay Culkin eventually turned into the kind of showbiz monster the entire planet should forget.
Admittedly, my contempt for Yuletide classics may stem from the fact that a niece in my ex-wife’s family was born on Christmas morning. Not long after she first drew breath, I began haunting video stores, buying up every copy of Dolly Parton's A Smoky Mountain Christmas so that she would never witness the holiday depths to which Hollywood could sink. As it turns out, a great advantage of having a niece born on Christmas Day is that Christmas babies, without exception, revile Christmas movies. This is because being born on Christmas is special and brings joy into people's lives, exactly the opposite of what Christmas movies do.
Of course, there are a few Christmas movies that do not induce apoplexy, nausea or hives. Love, Actually is redeemed by Bill Nighy's memorable turn as a washed-up rocker trying to cash in on the holiday season. Once you get past all the bayonets, tear gas and intestines flying through the air, Joyeux Noël – a 2006 French flick about an improbable Yuletide truce during the First World War – is bearable enough. Then there's the strange Un Conte de Noël, starring Catherine Deneuve. Putting Catherine Deneuve in a Christmas movie is a cheap trick by the French because Catherine Deneuve is France’s Christmas gift to humanity, just as Reese Witherspoon is America’s gift to the planet. Merci beaucoup, Tinseltown. Merci, mille fois.
Oh. Before I forget, in Un Conte de Noël Deneuve plays a woman dying of leukaemia who hates her kids. That's the French idea of Christmas cheer.
If I could give a gift to Christmas Day itself, it would be the promise that there would never be another Christmas movie. Obviously I can't do this because Christmas Day is an abstraction that can’t receive gifts and I don’t have the power to make such a guarantee anyway.
Until then, I stick to my all-time favourite Christmas movie: Bad Santa, a vicious, uncompromising attack on the entire genre featuring Billy Bob Thornton as the grumpy old elf in an unrelentingly funny performance on a par with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in The Producers. A particularly acrid feature of Bad Santa is casting child actor Brett Kelly as a dim witted porker who honestly believes that Thornton's debased department store Santa is the real McCoy. My Aunt Fay – who taught me Spanish, the piano and cynicism – was born on Christmas Day. I only wish she had lived long enough to see this film; she would have loved it.
*When I was young, oh so much younger than today, I believed that the United States would become completely unhinged at some point in my lifetime. This...