There’s a rumor I’ve heard whispered that at some point in its creation, Deck the Halls contained at least one original idea. However, the producers were so outraged by this affront to their commercial sensibilities that the idea was surgically excised and the perpetrator summarily executed. That’s probably not true, if only because any original idea in this witless drivel-fest would have died of loneliness in short order. Yes, it’s that bad. It’s actually worse than that bad, because Deck the Halls manages the not inconsiderable feat of making both Danny DeVito and Matthew Broderick painfully unfunny in the process of spreading prefab “Christmas cheer” for 95 very long minutes.
Holiday movies, of course, don’t need to be good to succeed at the box office — the fact that there have been three Tim Allen Santa Clause pictures proves that. Families in search of something — anything — that can be safely viewed by anyone from 6 to 96 will flock to such movies in a desperate bid to get the assembled family out of the house before bloodshed ensues. Only rarely are they rewarded for their efforts (the last time may have been in 1983 when Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story appeared). More often than not what appears on the screen is a box of Christmas movie cliches wrapped in tired slapstick and tied up with a bow made of trite lessons about the “true meaning of Christmas.” That’s what’s on display in Deck the Halls — and with slightly less depth and appeal than a Christmas display at Wal-Mart.
The premise here has the Halls (as in “Deck the” — get it?) moving to a town that could only exist in the mind of screenwriters. It’s a place where the local movie theater runs classic Christmas movies like Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), and downtown resembles nothing less than a street in Disney World. The brash and slightly obnoxious Buddy Hall (DeVito) seems an unlikely intrusion into this realm — as do his improbably sexy wife Tia (Kristin Chenoweth, Running with Scissors) and equally improbable sexy twin daughters (Gregor Mendel would have something to say about the genetics of this), Ashley and Emily (newcomers Sabrina and Kelly Adridge).
Problems arise when Buddy decides to wrest the title of the town’s “Christmas guy” from neighbor Steve Finch (Broderick), an uptight optometrist, who is the living embodiment of L.L. Beandom. Steve, who never met a theme tree he didn’t like and specializes in dressing his family in matching sweaters for the yearly Christmas photo, is appalled by Buddy’s crass garishness and desire to festoon his house with enough lights that it can be seen from outer space. From this hilarity is supposed to ensue for four reels, only to be displaced by gooey sentiment and forced good fellowship in the fifth.
Under the leaden guidance of director John Whitesell (Big Momma’s House 2), almost none of it works. The slapstick scenes are spectacularly flat. The sentimentality feels completely phony. And neither of the lead characters is very likable. (It’s easy to believe their families walk out on them, but hard to buy into their inevitable return.) Moreover, the script often makes no sense. One moment Buddy is struggling to pay off his mountainous debts; the next he’s able to buy back a “priceless” vase from a pawnshop on his credit cards.
Nearly everything about Deck the Halls is misjudged — not in the least the decision to include clips from bona fide seasonal classics, which only make this film look more vapid than it already did. It’s almost enough to make one nostalgic for 2004’s Christmas with the Kranks. Almost. Rated PG for some crude and suggestive humor, and for language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke