Are people serious when they say Hollywood is out of touch with Middle America? Because Columbia Pictures, it appears, is dreaming of a red-state Christmas this year. Adapted by Chris Columbus from John Grisham's "Skipping Christmas," and directed by Revolution Studios head Joe Roth, "Christmas With the Kranks" is a flat parable about the virtues of homespun conformity and the perils of defying family tradition -- the kind of family tradition that runs up the credit card balance, helping retailers reach their holiday projections.
Luther (Tim Allen) and Nora (Jamie Lee Curtis) Krank are an average, middle-aged suburban couple grimly facing their first empty-nest Christmas on Hemlock Street. (It's poisonous, but it's home.) Their daughter Blair (Julie Gonzalo) is heading off to Peru for a yearlong stint in the Peace Corps, and Christmas won't be the same without her. On a whim, Luther tallies up the damage from the previous year's yule-time blowout, and discovers the amount would cover the price of a luxury Caribbean cruise for two. That night at dinner, he lays the idea of skipping Christmas on Nora, who, in a dispiriting scene, mistakes his travel lust for the other kind.
The catch? To save money, Luther and Nora must adopt a scorched-earth attitude toward the holiday. That means no cards, no charity donations, no Christmas Eve party, no Scout-felled evergreen and no sexy policeman calendar featuring -- it's OK to cry -- Cheech Marin as Officer Salino.
Personally, I didn't immediately see the problem. But apparently, some people are more attuned to the terrors of neighborly meddling than I am. No sooner had Luther made his decision public than a woman sitting behind me let out a baleful "Uh-oh!" from which I gathered that the freedom to do what you want with your holidays is either not so much on the march, or her toddler, who kept cheering me up by yelling "Frosteee!" every time the famous snowman was mentioned, had spilled his juice.
Sure enough, Luther's plan raises the hackles of Hemlock Street's enforcer of community involvement, Vic Frohmeyer, played by an eerily deadpan Dan Aykroyd. The movie picks up a little steam as it devolves into a full-scale competition between suburban alpha dogs. But Curtis is uncharacteristically meek and dim as a suburban mom whose most salient personality trait is her fondness for holiday-themed sportswear.
When the Kranks fail to decorate their house according to neighborhood guidelines ("Frosteee!"), Vic launches a full-scale harassment campaign vaguely reminiscent of the Bush-Noriega grudge match of 1989, deploying a band of very loud carolers to smoke 'em out of their caves, metaphorically speaking. The more Vic tries to bully the Kranks into submission, the more Nora shrieks and cowers under the bedding. It's a bit of a shock to see the onetime slayer of "Halloween's" Michael clutch the curtains in terror and demand that her husband come home at once because a small suburban mob has gathered on her lawn.
At least Allen gets some perverse joy in bucking the system. Newly liberated and getaway-mad, Luther "base tans" himself to a crisp and paralyzes his face with Botox; Allen turns two throwaway minutes of trying to chew his lunch into the best thing in the movie by far.
Otherwise, all the old staples of comedic holiday hostility are here: Luther ices his walk to thwart the "Jingle Bells" onslaught; a cherished pet becomes a Popsicle; people fall off the roof.
Whatever meager fun there is comes to a grinding halt some time after Blair calls to announce she's changed her mind. She's coming home after all, and she's bringing her fiance. Nora and Luther turn to -- who else? -- the neighbors for help, and Vic rises to the occasion, marshaling the power of Hemlock Street to protect Blair from the awful, unknowable truth -- that Daddy bought a Speedo and very nearly got away.
Holiday movies can always be counted on to deliver a neatly wrapped moral gift. Here's what I got from "Christmas With the Kranks": While different lifestyle choices might seem tempting in the moment, they almost always spell disaster in the end.
And here's what Luther got: Though spending $75 on ornament repair might seem like a needless extravagance, it's what Christmas is all about.
It's a wonderful life for Wal-Mart shoppers.
'Christmas With the Kranks'
MPAA rating: PG for brief language and suggestive content
Times guidelines: A canned ham meets its untimely demise under the wheels of a semi; otherwise shock-free.
Tim Allen...Luther Krank
Jamie Lee Curtis...Nora Krank
Julie Gonzalo...Blair Krank
Dan Aykroyd...Vic Frohmeyer
Erik Per Sullivan...Spike Frohmeyer
Cheech Marin...Officer Salino
M. Emmet Walsh...Walt Scheel