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Saturday, November 25, 2006

Deck the Halls

Deck the Halls opened the past week at the Essex Cinemas and, frankly, I think someone should deck Matthew Broderick for making such a steaming load of Christmassy pooh. Throw as much tinsel as you want on a pile of reindeer dung and when you are done you’ve still got something that stinks at the core. I’m sorry, Dear Readers, but it is true.

This saddens me because I love Matthew Broderick, and I have no good reason to. His movie credits are shaky at best, ranging from the putrid remake of The Stepford Wives to the delicious Election, but I suppose he will always be best remembered for playing the title role in Ferris Bueller’s D
ay Off, the quintessential 1980s teen extravaganza that still sees life almost weekly on cable tv. Maybe that’s the problem. Our Ferris has grown up and grown old. Here he is called Steve Finch, a respected ophthalmologist, husband and father of his own teen and pre-teen, but he still looks, sounds and acts like Ferris to me. And I don’t want to think that the wildly optimistic and charismatic youth I remember as my peer is now middle-aged, wears cardigan sweaters and reminds me of Ward Cleaver with a hot poker up a place you’d never want one to be.

Yes, Steve is a real cranky-pants in Deck the Halls. He is obsessed with making Christmas “perfect” because as a child he was schlepped from one place to another as a military kid and he never had a traditional home with all the friends and trappings of a “Norman Rockwell” type Christmas, and so now, with his own family, he insists on making every day in December include a scheduled holiday event such as ‘putting up lights’ or ‘picking out a wreath’ or ‘go caroling’. Needless to say, he hasn’t asked his wife and kids whether this is their idea of fun. He just assumes that it is because they are all doing something together.

The wrench in his plans comes when the house across from the Finches’ on their picturesque cul-de-sac is leased and the new neighbors arrive to move
in one night past midnight. As Steve asks hypothetically “Who moves into a house in the middle of the night? A meth lab?” Well, it’s not a meth lab, but it might as well be. Instead it’s Buddy Hall (Danny DeVito; cable’s "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia"), the worst nightmare that could befall someone as anal retentive as Finch. Buddy is a fast-talking car salesman with good intentions (usually) but not a lot of common sense or courtesy. He’s loud, brash, and obnoxious, and as much as Steve tries to be the best neighbor he can be it’s obvious from the start that things are going to deteriorate quickly.

Of course, the wives get along famously as they always do in these types of movies. Steve’s wife Kelly (Kristin Davis of tvs "Sex and the City") and Buddy’s spouse Tia (Kristin Chenoweth; Running with Scissors) create a friendship that pretty much excludes their husbands. They know well enough what a couple of boobs these men can be and they leave them to their own devices until said devices threaten their own sanity or home, which is inevitable.

The main conflict of the film is based on the flimsy premise that Buddy is revealed to have a long past as a quitter, flitting from job to job, and disappointing his family with his inability to stick to something ~ anything ~ until it reaches a conclusion. When his twin daughters (played by newcomers Kelly and Sabrina Aldridge) mention that they can see their street, but not their house, from space via a satellite program on the Internet Buddy becomes obsessed. He is determined to make his house so bright with Christmas lights that it can be seen by the satellite in space and will be on computers all over the world. Somehow he feels this is going to make him a better man and prove to his wife and kids that he can accomplish something he starts.

You can pretty much imagine how Steve is going to react to all the tacky decorations brightening up “his” neighborhood. After all, he has been known as “Mr. Christmas” around town for years. People on the street stop him to ask his opinions about decorations since he is the self-proclaimed guardian
of this holiday. When it comes to local celebrations, for instance, it is not the mayor who is in charge. It is Steve Finch, and he has no intention of letting Buddy spoil Christmas by overshadowing it with his stupid stunt. On the other hand, Buddy argues, it is time for a change, and maybe he should take the reins as “Mr. Christmas. Maybe Steve could be “Mr. Toe Jam” instead, he suggests. Soon the two begin a war of wills to prove their commitment for the unofficial title of “Mr. Christmas.” Buddy keeps piling on more and more lights, while Finch comes up with elaborate schemes to sabotage the ever-growing display.

I won’t give anything away here in case you are still masochistic enough to
sit through Deck the Halls but the competition that develops between the two men becomes so intense it does eventually result in enough marital strife to split apart the couples, puts both men in a church washing their eyes out with Holy Water, and at one point even finds Steve and Buddy naked together in a sleeping bag. That last bit is probably the funniest and most revolting sixty seconds ever on film simply because first I imagined how awkward filming it must have been and what silliness the guys must have said while waiting for the cameras to role, and then I found myself pondering what I would do if I found myself in that situation with Danny Devito. Then I thought of Rhea Perlman (Old Love), Danny’s real-life wife, and realized what a true humanitarian she is. She is the Mother Theresa of sex, willing to go to the trenches with those others would rather forget or turn away from. God bless her… but I digress as usual.

Unfortunately, Deck the Halls squanders a lot of great talent with a lot of tired bits that we’ve seen many times before. We’ve had feuding neighboring in Christmas with the Kranks; we’ve dealt with the fanatical guy lighting his house to excess in National Lampoon‘s Christmas Vacation; we’ve already experienced the silly sleigh ride gone awry (also in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation) and who can even count the number of times poor Matthew Broderick ends up looking like a victim of one of Kevin McAllister’s pranks from the Home Alone series? Basically, it’s all been seen and done before and Deck the Halls doesn’t have much of anything
fresh to add except for a lovely rendition of “O Holy Night” in the final moments of the movie, led by Kristin Chenoweth, who is a Tony Award winning Broadway singer and would be best served on the stage where her talents can be appreciated in vehicles like “Wicked” and “The Apple Tree.” At least her singing explains her role in the picture because I sure wasn’t buying the idea that this gorgeous, busty blonde was married to that fishy little slime-bucket Penguin from Batman Returns. I mean, aside from the obvious looks difference, her character is written as someone smart, sweet, and capable enough so that nobody but a troll would believe she’d ever spend the past sixteen years married to a guy with no ambition or taste.

Whatever warmth and Christmas cheer you are supposed to feel while leaving the theater after seeing Deck the Halls is just not going to endure past the end of your row as you make your way to the stairs to exit. The rushed burst of “community spirit” and reconciliation amongst all the estranged parties in this mess because they’ve been filled with the 'true spirit' of Christmas is as contrived and dumb as the kind of stuff you see on network tv sitcoms. Yawn. It’s as if they all looked at the amount of film they had left to shoot and suddenly realized they had to wrap things up (thankfully!) quickly so they just whizzed through a perfunctory “Kumbaya”
moment to make everybody feel warm and fuzzy inside. It made me feel cold and constipated instead.

If you want to feel some real emotions and take the family for a heart-felt good time, check out
Happy Feet instead, also playing at the Essex Cinemas. Now that is a movie that really entertains.

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