Saturday, December 12, 2009

Bah Humbug! Holiday Films So Cute I Puke

Crank up the schmaltz and mix in a preposterous plot. It’s nearly Christmas and for the next few weeks we’ll be bombarded with movies that give me hives.

We’ve all had the experience of wandering into the wrong bar and immediately realizing that, unless we leave quickly, something horrid will occur. This has happened to me 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.

If I turn on television and the words “John Hughes,” “Chevy Chase,” “Tim Allen” and “Dan Aykroyd” pop up on the screen, my blood runs cold, my temples throb and I switch over to Fat Boy Hackeysack on ESPN2, or faux history shows like Ancestors in the Attic and Ice Road Truckers. I’d rather watch more bad news from Afghanistan on BBC World, or even Céline Dion on Ice.

In fact, I’ll watch almost anything other than Christmas movies, which have one of only four plots: 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-corn film should be re-titled It’s A Wonderful Subprime Life, with Bernie Madoff and the entire AIG board in digitally manipulated cameo appearances.

A Christmas Carol, in any of its myriad versions, perpetuates the myth that the obscenely rich can be made to see the error of their ways and be rehabilitated even though anyone who has ever dealt with someone obscenely rich knows it isn’t 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. 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 Four Christmases.

These people were genuine stars. Not stand-up comics like Will Ferrell or Chevy Chase or Vince Vaughn who get cast in films only because they sell tickets, but bona fide movie stars. Christmas With the Kranks is so bad that after 20 minutes, I switched the audio from to French from English and SAP’d Korean subtitles hoping it would make Aykroyd seem amusing.

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 if there are no orphanages. Even 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.

Along with my Aunt Fay, 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 Dec. 25th is that Christmas babies, without exception, revile Christmas movies.

Some Respite

Of course, there are some Christmas movies that do not induce 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 – an odd 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 because Catherine Deneuve is France’s Christmas gift to humanity. Merci beaucoup. Merci, mille fois.

Oh. Before I forget, in Un Conte de Noël Deneuve plays a woman dying of leukaemia who hates her kids. This is 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 almost 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. I only wish that my aunt had lived long enough to see this film; she would have loved it.

And if you’re truly in a foul mood from watching too many Christmas movies, there’s always Sarah Silverman’s holiday music video.

To you, the best of the holiday season – which is more likely to happen if you avoid holiday movies. They’re so cute you could puke.


Sally Gibson said...

I particularly liked yout line about preferring Celine Dion on Ice to any of the movies. Thanks for Give the Jew Girl Toys, too.

The only Christmas movie I love is, well, the original Christmas Carol … because I grew up with it. Have it in black and white and try to see it most years.

Have to say, however, it’s different when there are some tiny kids around.

R. P. Coxxe said...

I agree that Catherine Deneuve is France’s gift to the world.

When John Linsday was mayor of New York, one of the things he did to create “Fun City” was launch a film festival. At the opening screening of the opening night of the festival, held at Lincoln Center, Lindsay stood up in front of the large crowd to welcome everyone.

The first film starred a very young and outrageously beautiful Catherine Deneuve, who was in the audience. Lindsay – who had a reputation for being a playboy – introduced her by saying, “They don’t make women like Catherine Deneuve anymore. Come to think of it, neither do it.”

Cathleen said...

Yet you have actually watched them.