- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Tim Allen mugged his way through two mawkish “Santa Clause” features. Now, he wants us to skip Christmas entirely.

Make up your mind, Tool Time man.

Mr. Allen’s latest holiday offering, “Christmas with the Kranks,” is a seasonal curveball along the lines of last year’s bile-filled “Bad Santa.”

But “Kranks” wants membership in the treasured, and lucrative, family Christmas movie sweepstakes. This requires that edgy cultural punches landing during the film’s cynical setup get swept aside by a sugary denouement.

“Kranks,” based on author John Grisham’s holiday from legal thrillers called “Skipping Christmas,” finds middle-aged parents Luther (Mr. Allen) and Nora (Jamie Lee Curtis) bemoaning their first holiday season sans daughter Blair.

She’s off to Peru with the Peace Corps, and Luther figures dropping major coin on holiday trappings she won’t ever see doesn’t make sense.

So, he crunches some numbers and decides it would be cheaper, and a lot more fun, to splurge on a Caribbean getaway instead. So long as they skip the season entirely.

No tinsel. No Christmas cards. No never-ending lines at department stores.

Doesn’t sound so bad when you think about it, assuming the holiday’s spiritual essence isn’t considered. And “Kranks” doesn’t even bother toying with matters of faith beyond the local priest (Tom Poston) catching Nora in her bikini.

Nora slowly warms to the idea. The Kranks’ neighbors take it poorly.

Unofficial town mayor Vic Frohmeyer (Dan Aykroyd) rallies the citizenry to shame the Kranks into reconsidering. He arranges for Christmas carolers to besiege their house. The neighborhood’s bratty kids, under Vic’s command, demand the release of the Kranks’ Frosty statue.

Even the Boy Scouts get into the act, giving Luther the stink eye when he gently rebuffs their Christmas tree sales pitch.

So far, so good, despite swallowing the notion that the community doesn’t appear to have a Jew, Muslim or atheist within shouting distance.

“Kranks” points out the season’s material free-for-all in amusing set pieces which let Mr. Allen and Miss Curtis hone a realistic rapport

Then, Blair calls her folks out of the blue and says she’s coming home for Christmas after all and is bringing her new beau along. Can the Kranks deck the halls and make peace with their neighbors in less than 24 hours?

The desperation which intermittently interrupts “Kranks” — a rain-soaked gag aimed at the Nickelodeon set, a comic Botox injection scenario for the adults — comes full circle once Blair returns.

Suddenly, we’re pelted with yuletide gaiety on a scale that would choke Ol’ Saint Nicholas.

Mr. Allen, whose “Home Improvement” epitomized Middle America’s cultural malaise, continues to find a comfortable home on the big screen no matter the project. Too bad Miss Curtis doesn’t follow her on-screen partner step-by-step. She’s screechy when she should be slowly burning, though she’s game for donning that bikini for a sight gag most fortysomething actresses would have nixed at the first table reading.

Director Joe Roth, the prolific producer whose brief forays behind the camera (2001’s “America’s Sweethearts,” 1987’s “Revenge of the Nerds II”) rarely spin gold, gets tripped up by Chris Columbus’ inane plotting. The film doesn’t trust itself to bite deeply into the season’s mores. Instead, it manufactures a house robber subplot that goes nowhere and gives Cheech Marin literally nothing to do as the town’s beat cop.

The film’s poignant suplot, an elderly couple battling with the wife’s recurrent cancer, never reaches the peak its meant to ascend.

“Christmas with the Kranks” can’t compare to 1989’s “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” which mined similarly snarky terrain with funnier consequences. That film defied logic to become, in many people’s minds, a cherished holiday feature.

The best to be said about “Christmas with the Kranks” is that it’ll make us think twice before insisting strangers smile when we wish them a “Merry Christmas.”

**

WHAT: “Christmas with the Kranks”

RATING: PG (slapstick violence, some mildly harsh language)

CREDITS: Directed by Joe Roth. Written by Chris Columbus based on John Grisham’s “Skipping Christmas”

RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes

WEB SITE: https://www.sonypictures.com/movies/christmas withthekranks/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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