Playing By The Same Old Rules in Matthew Broderick’s ‘Deck the Halls’
Deck the Halls is a 2006 comedy about two neighbors who have it out after one of them decorates his house for the holidays so brightly that it can be seen from space.
Christmas movies somehow have made a disturbing transformation since the 90s and into the present, where they’ve abandoned heartwarming, musical stories of family, redemption and altruism and turned them into farcical slapsticks with a cruel streak or overly melodramatic hyper-romance films of fairytale madness. An argument could be made that it all began with National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, though that film was far more endearing than anything it influenced. Either way, Christmas at the movies is rarely ever joyful.
Recently, I tried to figure out what was going on in 2004 dismal Christmas with the Kranks, and now it’s Deck the Halls, another disappointing ‘family’ movie that completely misses the point, thinking big and brash equals funny rather than something more nuanced. There’s nothing wrong with physical comedy and sight gags, as Chevy Chase so perfectly made clear, however if not in service of an honest, character-driven story, it hardly matters. With Deck the Halls, NOTHING matters. This is another empty holiday ‘treat’. Let’s take a look.
Directed by John Whitesell, Deck the Halls follows Steve Finch (Matthew Broderick), a small town Massachusetts opthamologist who adores Christmas, or at least being in charge of it. He’s the town’s festival chairman and looks forward to the traditional aspects of the season. He’s got a lovely wife (Kristin Davis) and two slightly maladjusted kids Madison (Alia Shawkat) and Carter (Dylan Blue). That’s all put to the test though when a new neighbor moves in across the street. He’s Buddy Hall (Danny DeVito), a new man in town who takes a job as a car salesman. He’s married to the ever-devoted Tia (Kristin Chenoweth) and has twin blonde girls (Kelly Aldridge and Sabrina Aldridge) – who dress like sex kittens and are only interested in the cute boys at school. We learn that he’s a little obnoxious but suffers from a problem. He feels invisible, as if he’s never amounted to anything. When his girls show him a website that lets people see their houses from space – and learns his is unseen – he comes up with a plan; decorate his home with so many Christmas lights, it’ll be the brightest house on the planet.
Naturally, Steve is none too happy about it and looks to shut him down, which only escalates Buddy’s endeavor, creating an electric extravaganza that makes the word ‘extreme’ seem like an adjective best used to describe a plain rice cake. The two grown men start a war over the decorations, taking it public, eventually leading the women to pack up and head for a hotel. You can guess where that leaves the boys.
This is a movie I really want to like. Broderick is one of my favorites and Devito is always fun to watch, and the two make a solid comedy duo, it’s just the movie can’t do anything innovative with them. The film is unnervingly contrived and hollow, reaching at every moment to be something it isn’t. The main problem is that both men are just plain awful people, selfish and self-centered, and while sure, the point is that they are meant to overcome this and find redemption, it never once feels earned. Instead, we are led down an increasingly absurd path of silliness that does nothing to make these men more interesting or likeable, let alone anything funny. Buddy complains of being a nobody, but is shown to have incredible salesmanship (he sells the owner of the car dealership a car – at sticker price – within five minutes of starting work), and in truth, the whole set up for this story is abandoned almost immediately, only brought back when the movie needs to remind you why they are going to such lengths. It barely makes sense.
It’s not for lack of effort, as the two very funny men simply have nothing to work with. They are given jokes but every one of them has no punchline. Take an ice skating race, one that is set up early where the two men end up in a contest with only three other people (one of which is a woefully underused Fred Armisen). It’s a dull event that has them go around a figure eight twice with absolutely no payoff. Then there’s a sequence where Steve, infuriated with Buddy’s lights, buys a blackmarket ‘War Lord’ firecracker bomb with the intention of blasting his neighbor’s house, only to end up dropping it down his own chimney. The climax of that pratfall is, well, a sputtering dud. Let’s not forget the camel spit and the unbearably uncomfortable moment when the men get aroused watching ‘sexy’ dancers in skimpy Santa outfits dance at the festival, only to learn they are their daughters. What were the filmmakers thinking?
Now I don’t want to be all Scroogie and yank all the Christmas fun out of these movies, because, yes, film certain evolves and for awhile now, thanks mostly to TV sitcoms that have reduced ‘comedy’ to insults and petty violence, movies like this are sort of inevitable, a predictable mashup of safety that has no challenge or creativity. I liken it to the trend of buying and wearing ‘bad’ holiday sweaters, where a few honest gifts long ago got labeled ugly and thus – as all things eventually become – marketed as a legit consumer thing. Christmas commercialized is all about bad taste and kitsch, and in some way, it sort of serves as a rebellion to the smarminess it once was.
However, why do movies like this continue to get made? Families at the holidays are naturally loaded with opportunities for a few good pokes at the movies, but the movies continually get it wrong. The lessons learned from films like Christmas Vacation seem never to be about the dynamic of what it means to be a family during the holidays but rather pratfalls and body-injuring gags are funny and we’d better go bigger.
I promise, the next Christmas movie featured here will be a good one, but for those hoping to get a few good laughs out of this … they will surely be disappointed. It’s an implausible mess that if seen from space, will only have watchers turning away.