Welcome to Flopcorn, where Reader writers and contributors pay tribute to our very favorite bad movies. In this installment, contributor Mason Johnson ponders the darkness that lies at the heart of Christmas With the Kranks.
The joy of Christmas may be all around us, but the majestic, terrifying Christmas with the Kranks firmly plants its feet in film noir, friendo.
The first scene of Kranks feels more like a wistful story of alienation like Lost in Translation or Garden State than it does phoned-in holiday drivel. It begins with a shot of the emotionless faces of Luther and Nora Krank lying awake in bed as their alarm clock goes off. The whiny and melodramatic indie song playing like a war chant in the background almost guarantees you could replace them with Zach Braff and Scarlett Johansson and nothing would feel amiss. You would think: “Oh, this movie was made around 2003.” Despite this audio oddity, Luther and Nora aren’t experiencing Noah Baumbach-like internal struggles—they’re just two desperate people at the end of their Christmas rope with nothing to lose.
The couple, played by Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis, are recent empty-nesters—hence the doom-filled expressions. Dealing with the impending exodus of their only daughter, they commit an unthinkable crime: They decide to replace their traditional family Christmas party, which includes their entire neighborhood, with a cruise. But you don’t just quit Christmas, ya see? Your past, as we learned in films like Out of the Past and Payback, catches up with you, one way or another.
Catching wind of the Kranks’ plan, their neighbors become determined to drag Luther and Nora back into their fanatical festive fold. Dan Aykroyd, sporting his Chicaaaaahhhgo accent, plays Luther and Nora’s block captain, Vic. He takes it upon himself to talk some sense into them. “So I hear you ain’t celebrating Christmas this year,” he says. Luther silently nods. “That’s a shame,” Vic continues. “We do it for the kids.”
Every conversation between Luther and Vic feels like an exchange of threats. On the surface, the words seem innocent, but look under the hood and you’ll find the engine’s running on Tool Time masculinity—each line implying that a disastrous “accident” lurks around every corner. And that’s not the only noir trope. The Boy Scouts are apparently the only source of Christmas trees in the neighborhood, and they rule their turf with an iron fist. Two police officers, played by Jake Busey and Cheech Marin, go door-to-door selling Christmas calendars for the local precinct—among the more inventive protection rackets I’ve seen on screen.
Halfway through the movie, it’s revealed that Luther and Nora’s daughter is planning a surprise visit during Christmas. Suddenly, their efforts against Christmas must be reversed. Suddenly, they’re dragged back into the same seedy Christmas underbelly they thought they had escaped. As Luther and Nora prepare a Christmas bash for the whole neighborhood, you feel a knot in your stomach. Your intuition has told you something will go wrong, and you wait. . . .
. . . And it never quite comes. Which isn’t a surprise since the movie isn’t intended to be crime noir. That’s just the lens I created to enjoy what is otherwise a mediocre, poorly executed movie. Kranks is full of oddball sadism, the trademark of its writer, the Dark Prince of Christmas himself, Chris Columbus, director of the torture flick Home Alone and screenwriter of the original Gremlins. Is the sinister impression I get from Kranks due to director Joe Roth’s mishandling of Columbus’s odd sense of humor? Could be. Then again, Kranks was adapted from a short story by John Grisham. Is it possible his fascination with global espionage is threatening to break through into the world of the Kranks? There are many potential reasons for Kranks’ problems, but regardless of their cause, the film’s over-the-top attempts at comedy and ultimate failure to sincerely inspire Christmas cheer do combine to create an ending that’s dark as hell.
In the final moments, Luther Krank crosses the street to visit the only people in the neighborhood not at the last-minute Christmas party the Kranks decided to throw. In what is supposed to be a selfless act, he hands the tickets for the cruise he and Nora can no longer take to his neighbors, Walt and Bev, the latter of whom has terminal cancer.
Walt and Bev would never be able to take the trip. They try to say as much, but Luther doesn’t take no for an answer. He refused to see that the gift of an elaborate cruise to someone so sick she can’t walk across the street is more cruel than generous. And thus, Luther’s redemptive act is about as warm and fuzzy as Tim Allen’s 1970s mugshot.
Christmas with the Kranks ends with Tim Allen standing in the middle of the snow-covered street looking up into the depths of the black sky. He has been devoured by the very world he’s built for himself. Snowflakes fall gently on to his face, but Tim Allen isn’t a man emboldened by cheer. He’s the vagabond who’s been stabbed and left for dead in an alley. He’s the robber who took a shot to the gut and is bleeding out in the back of a speeding car. All hope is lost. He has embraced the cold. He is saying goodbye.