The poisonous holiday "comedy" "Christmas With the Kranks" is a resolutely minor affair. That said, it nails a curiously widespread contradiction in modern American pop culture -- the desperate, self-negating need to be both cynical and sentimental at the same time. Here's a film that says Christmas is a sellout, that your neighbors are morons, and that suburbia is a playground of fascist conformity, and then it concludes that anyone who actually believes that is a heartless Scrooge. Confused yet? So's the movie.
The credits tell you all you need to know. Tim Allen, still flogging his Red State Everyguy persona, stars as Luther Krank, a Chicago accountant who decides to skip Christmas one year and, in so doing, sets off a storm of protest on his block. Jamie Lee Curtis brings her narrow-eyed sense of mischief to the part of Luther's wife, Nora.
Behind the camera is studio head and occasional director Joe Roth, but the guiding spirit of "Christmas With the Kranks" is writer-producer Chris Columbus, who as a filmmaker has given the world some hugely successful movies ("Home Alone," "Mrs. Doubtfire," the first two Harry Potters) but rarely one that's more than middlebrow-competent. Columbus is working from a novel by John Grisham, whose expertise in legal thrillers doesn't exactly make him the go-to guy for madcap humor.
Not surprisingly, there's little in "Kranks" that is actively funny, even with such a richly jaundiced setup. Who hasn't felt fed up with the oppressive cheer and iron-plated commercialism that takes over the day after Halloween? Who isn't sick of Christmas Muzak by Thanksgiving? Who wouldn't jump at the chance to chuck it all and go sit on a beach?
This is what Luther and Nora decide after their daughter (the generic Julie Gonzalo) heads off to the Peace Corps. For the Kranks' effrontery, the movie proceeds to punish them until they (and we) cry uncle. Shopkeepers are aghast, friends snub them, and the self-appointed mayor of their block, Vic Frohmeyer (Dan Aykroyd), rounds up an angry mob.
The Kranks' sin? Opting out. Refusing to put a grotesque styrofoam snowman on their roof like every other house on the street. Your heart goes out to them, since "Kranks" paints the neighbors as nasty sheep, their children (led by Erik Per Sullivan of "Malcolm in the Middle") as thugs, and the cops (Cheech Marin and Jake Busey) as dumb and dumber.
Now, there's humor to be had in despising other people amusingly -- W.C. Fields made a career out of it -- and when Luther takes it upon himself to deal with a particularly obnoxious group of carolers, it looks like the movie might have the courage of its own bile.
Unfortunately, not even last year's "Bad Santa" was able to spike its eggnog to the last frame, and Tim Allen is, shall we say, no Billy Bob Thornton. An early warning sign of the movie's inherent squishiness is the neighbor lady (Elizabeth Franz) with, sigh, cancer, and then Luther starts doing stupid things like Botoxing his forehead (he looks like a Kabuki parade float). "Kranks" humiliates Curtis by wedging her into a teeny-weeny bikini at a shopping mall tanning salon, and then a couple of other things happen to make you wonder, excuse me, but whose side is this movie on?
Everyone's in theory; no one's in practice. Remarkably, "Kranks" is a feel-good movie in which every character is hateful (except, sigh, the cancer lady), and a Christmas movie too chickenhearted to mention Jesus. Waxing ironic about the holidays is a tricky balancing act -- perhaps the only movie to have successfully pulled it off is 1983's "A Christmas Story," and that had everything to do with writer/narrator Jean Shepherd's spiky brand of nostalgia -- but "Kranks" spends half its running time backing away from its own sting. The movie rails against the tinsel and then rushes to hang some more.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.