Christmas Bonus: Top 5 Holiday Comedies of All Time

Well, we’re hip-deep in the holiday season, and a serious snafu with my AT&T U-Verse service has caused all my DVR’d shows to be wiped out, along with my HD signal. An early lump of coal in my 42-inch plasma stocking (there’s an image for you). This puts a serious dent in my obsessive, holiday-themed viewing, which I wrote about last year. I can only hope some of the things I had in the archives will be re-run. So while I wait a week for the irritable AT&T maitenance elves to sally forth from their magical workshop and get my shit back in working order, my thoughts turn to movies on DVD…

When the Institute of Idle Time launched its zine in the fall of 2008, I made a promise to myself that the zine would feature exclusive content from the pen of the Holy Bee, and articles from the zine would not reappear online in any form, making the physical copies of the zine valuable collector’s items.

As I’ve observed before, promises to yourself are pretty easy to break. In observance of the season, I couldn’t resist posting (with a few 2009 editorial notes and web links) my article from the Winter 2008 issue of IDLE TIMES — Top 5 Holiday Comedies!

There are two primary categories of holiday movies. The heart-warming family classics (It’s A Wonderful Life, Miracle On 34th Street, etc.), and the broad holiday comedy, which is surprisingly difficult to pull off. For every score, there’s five misses (see the recommendations below). For this Top 5, I decided to go the trickier route. I cast my net for the movies that met the following parameters: 1) it had to deal in some way with one or more of the major year-end holidays, 2) it had to be marketed specifically as a comedy, and 3) it had to be a movie I watch every year like clockwork. When I shared my list with some acquaintances, several took umbrage at what appeared to them to be a glaring omission: The perennial favorite A Christmas Story. Yes, it’s a terrific film, and I own it in multiple formats. But its 24-hour airing on TNT each year has caused a little Red Ryder BB-gun fatigue to set in, plus everything in that movie is on the surface. It wears its heart on its sleeve, and all its cards are dealt face-up.

To make this Top 5, a move must require you to dig a little deeper. Discovering a surprising, soulful, real moment smuggled into a raucous comedy about coping with holiday expectations is like unwrapping a present under the tree. The holidays put us under pressure to be our best selves, and have our best time of the year. Sometimes, the pressure can become unbearable, and we snap…comedy (or tragedy) results.

#5. Bad Santa
“Don’t fuck with my beard.”
“It’s not real.”
“No shit. Well, it was real, but you see I got sick and all the hair fell out so I have to wear this fucking thing.”
“How’d you get sick?”
“I loved a woman who wasn’t clean.”
“Mrs. Santa?”
“No, it was her sister.”
–Willie “Santa” Stokes & the child on his lap.

You know what really grinds my gears? People who think they’re over and above the holidays. People who smirk and snort and say “It’s all a big commercial” or worse, give an exasperated, eye-rolling sigh and say something like “I hate the fucking holidays” or other surly too-cool-for-schoolisms. This kind of behavior is rampant among folks of my generation. Fine, for the other eleven months of the year, be your awesome, hyper-critical intellectual NPR-listening selves. But when December rolls around, recognize. Accept the fact that in an old photo album at your parents’ house is a picture of you in pajamas on Christmas morning (with a comical case of bed-head) holding up Castle Greyskull or a Pound Puppy and grinning toothlessly ear-to-ear. Accept the fact that that happy little shit is still within you, and needs to be indulged once a year.

On the surface, Terry (Ghost World) Zwigoff’s Bad Santa is just the sort of movie for the naysayers. The setting is Phoenix with a brief interlude in Miami Beach, the least Christmassy cities in the U.S. (The inclusion of Honolulu would make a perfect trifecta.) There is no element of the beloved St. Nick that Bad Santa does not debase by simply putting a Santa suit on Willie T. Stokes (Billy Bob Thornton), an alcoholic, misanthropic career criminal who uses his yearly employment as a department store Santa to rob said department stores blind on his last night of work, Christmas Eve. But before the big payoff, he must subject himself to a month of a crying, urinating toddlers and eternal loops of mindless Christmas carols on the store’s loudspeakers. Stokes deals with all of this by lashing out at everyone as profanely and angrily as possible, usually while in costume and on duty. (He is protected from being fired by partnering with an African-American dwarf who threatens costly employment discrimination lawsuits.) If the movie confined itself to merely to laughing at harried middle-class soccer moms and their over-indulged spawn and Stokes’ foul-mouthed verbal beatdowns of them, this would just be another corpse in the pit-grave of crass holiday comedies. But the filmmakers (including producers Joel & Ethan Coen, who purportedly had a hand in the writing) are far too clever for that.

Stokes is a genuinely dark and damaged human being, who hates all people, but he reserves his most vicious hatred for himself. He is clearly days away from wrapping his whiskered lips around the barrel of a revolver and giving the walls of his cheap motel room a very special kind of Christmas decoration. Then he meets the slow-witted, moon-faced “kid.” The kid latches himself onto Stokes, insisting on calling him “Santa” (even when he’s out of costume) and interrogating him on sleigh and reindeer details. It’s just the kind of kid that should provoke the worst in Stokes, but…it somehow doesn’t. Stokes discovers the kid lives only with his senile grandmother in a sterile McMansion in the suburbs, and moves himself in. What starts as a crass exploitation of the sweet, trusting child evolves (very) slowly into tolerance, then protectiveness, and finally, affection. (But not before a suicide attempt involving a running car in a closed garage, along with detailed instruction to the kid as to what to do when they come to “bag Santa up.”)

The final segments are as heartwarming as anything found in Prancer. The kid admits to knowing that Stokes isn’t really Santa, but it was easier to lose himself in fantasy than to deal with the fact that his mother is dead and his father is in prison. Stokes derails his yearly heist to deliver the kid’s single Christmas present. He braves his murderous partner and police pursuers to give a gift to the one human being who has ever shown him unconditional affection. So if Willie T. Stokes can be touched by the magic of Christmas, then it can’t be too much of a stretch for all you hipster douchebags to lighten the fuck up and squeeze some joy out of this time of year.

BONUS POINTS: The final screen appearance of John Ritter as the store manager, and Lauren Graham playing the anti-Gilmore Girl, a dimwitted cocktail waitress with an uber-creepy Santa fetish.

#4. Scrooged
“I’m sorry. I thought you were Richard Pryor.”
–Frank Cross, after tossing water on someone he believed was on fire.

Most people are unaware that Charles Dickens pretty much bullshitted up Christmas as we know it. In the early 1800s, devout Protestants (which is what most Americans were) eyed it suspiciously, as it still reeked to them of solstice-worshipping paganism and/or Roman popery. Those who did celebrate Christmas did so in a low-key, Thanksgiving-ish way. (Thanksgiving as national celebration did not crop up until the 1860s. The “Pilgrims” —another bullshitted-up term— had the first one in 1621, and then it was promptly forgotten about for 240 years). With the publication of Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol in 1843, all holiday hell broke loose. An immediate smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic, we have Dickens’ highly detailed prose to thank for inventing the “perfect” Christmas. Charles Dickens, it must be remembered, was a pretty good writer. He concocted the very first “winter wonderland”: snow, roasting chestnuts, holly & mistletoe, ringing bells, and ruddy-cheeked festive folks chock-full of goodwill toward men, all colliding together in a giddy orgy of holiday cheer. None of this existed as a whole in the popular conception of Christmas before Dickens’ story. Dickens created a totally idealized holiday scenario to throw the darkness of his main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, into sharp contrast. Its primary function as a literary device has been superseded by its new existence as a template for a perfect Christmas, which cannot exist – but it doesn’t stop many from striving for it (see my #1 Holiday Comedy)

Movie versions of A Christmas Carol have existed for as long as cinema itself…and I love every damn one of them. From the 1938 version starring Reginald Owen (known to Disney geeks as “Admiral Boom” in Mary Poppins) to the “definitive” 1951 version starring Alastair Sim (once voted the most popular actor in Britain, for whatever that’s worth), all are as addictive as Christmas crack to me. I especially enjoy the two made-for-TV versions, the 1999 version starring Patrick Stewart, and the 1984 version starring George C. Scott (the best screen Scrooge in my opinion). Neither spared any expense in effects and casting, and hold up even better than the cinematic offerings. [ED. NOTE: The 2004 musical version with Kelsey Grammer was one of the casualties of my DVR meltdown. Hadn’t seen it yet, but hopes weren’t too high for it, anyway.]

But we are talking theatrical releases here, and we’re talking comedy. Comedic versions of A Christmas Carol have been tried from time to time, but the one that pulls it off the best is 1988’s Scrooged. Directed by Richard (Goonies/Lethal Weapon) Donner, it was co-written by the late Michael O’Donoghue, the misanthropic former SNL scribe who gave us such black-hearted delights as “The Little Engine That Died.” Like Bad Santa, Scrooged mines holiday comedy from really dark territory. Scrooges in other versions tend to play the role with such snarling nastiness that the audience can sense it’s a complete front, and the third act redemption and transformation just seem like fait accompli. In Scrooged, Bill Murray plays Frank Cross, the Scrooge character, not with hammy cinematic crankiness, but rather taps into the pure cynicism that beats at the heart of the literary Scrooge. In his own mind, he is perfectly reasonable, and the rest of the world is delusional. Murray avoids Scrooge clichés by dumping the gruff bluster (let’s face it, George C. Scott cornered the market on that) and infusing Frank Cross with his trademark brand of cool, blank-faced, ironic detachment. This allows us to see a little of our post-modern selves in him, and makes his final transformation all the more unsettling and powerful.

Many Carol adaptations forget that the visits from the Christmas Ghosts are supposed to be creepy and traumatic, otherwise they wouldn’t convince Scrooge/Cross to change his ways. The Ghosts put Cross through a physical and emotional wringer, leading up to the final transformation, which by the way, is a manic, improvised rant filmed in what appears to be a single take. Murray genuinely looks like someone who has reached the end of his rope, and experienced a re-birth. He concludes with a shaky, out-of-breath declaration that he feels “really better” than he’s felt “in a long time.” Sometimes simple words say it best.

And do yourself a favor and read the original story. It’s short (it can be done in one or two sittings), and reminds you why this Dickens fella was such a swingin’ dick back in the day…

BONUS POINTS: A scene capitalizing on Murray’s resemblance to Richard Burton, which I swear no one before or since, to my knowledge, has remarked upon except myself.

#3. Grumpy Old Men
“What could make two grown men spend the majority of their lives fighting each other?”
“Guess.”
“…A woman.”

–Ariel Truax & John Gustafson

Perhaps the worst title for a good movie ever. I remember when I first heard it, I thought it was a film version of a bad SNL sketch (remember the one with Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz as cranky octogenarians sitting on a park bench? Of course you don’t.) It turned out the be a late-era classic from frequently-paired duo Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Lemmon and Matthau had a peculiar sweet-and-sour chemistry, best displayed in slightly dark, character-driven comedies, like the 60’s classics The Fortune Cookie and The Odd Couple. I went to see GOM to pay my respects to what I imagined would be the final L&M pairing, as they were getting on in years. (Unfortunately, the unfunny Out To Sea and the downright abominable Odd Couple 2 were still in their short future. Matthau died shortly thereafter, and no wonder.) Imagine my surprise when a bona-fide holiday classic unfolded before my eyes. Not that it deals explicitly with holiday themes, but the comedic action unfolds from the week before Thanksgiving to the night before Christmas. Too many people I know dismissed this movie without seeing it, claiming it was just a couple of old codgers making pre-Viagra limp dick jokes. OK, admittedly, that’s in there…a lot. But there is so much more.

John Gustafson (Lemmon) and Max Goldman (Matthau) are two widowers and next-door neighbors in Wabasha, Minnesota. They have been at odds since 1938, when the local hottie chose one over the other. Although they bicker and snipe, you get the sense that they’re just going through the motions, and that they really don’t care about anything anymore. In fact, the juvenile pranks and name-calling they perpetrate on each other seem to be the only spark of life in these guys…until a new woman, Ariel Traux (Ann-Margaret), comes into their lives, tossing fuel on their smoldering resentment. Pranks mushroom into physical assaults and desperate sabotage…

…and it’s the best thing that’s happened to them in years. Although it may seem like the renewal of real hostilities is a bad thing, it’s quite the opposite. For years, the two men have been dead inside, and just waiting for their bodies to follow suit. (There are few sights sadder than John whiling away a long winter evening playing chess with himself, or Max begging his adult son to stay just a few minutes longer.) The competition snaps them out of their deathwatch, re-invigorates them, and in the end, makes them realize their deep lifelong bond. Max, up until now portrayed as the nastier of the two, ends up doing a number of heartfelt kindnesses for John, who falls seriously ill in the film’s climax. When the hospital nurse asks the visiting Max if he’s “friend or family” of John, the puzzled, emotional pause before he chokes out the word “friend” says it all.

And talk about atmosphere! That’s its greatest assets as a holiday movie. Snow, snow, and more snow. The film’s depiction of a true Midwestern winter is vivid enough to be another character. (Think Fargo without the dismembered bodies in wood-chippers.) For someone born and raised in California who wishes he had real seasons, it’s a fantasyland. I want to ice-fish! I want to put on my heaviest coat and galoshes for the thirty-second walk to the mailbox! I want to trudge blocks through thigh-high snow to enjoy an 8-ounce glass of Miller High Life at a cozy tavern called “Slippery’s.” I’m sure the novelty would wear off fast, though, which is why tuning in to GOM from the comfort of my sofa every November is such a treat.

BONUS POINTS: Sit through the closing credits for a final word from Matthau.

#2. Planes, Trains & Automobiles
“If I wanted a joke, I’d follow you into the john and watch you take a leak. Now are you going to help me, or are you going to stand there like a slab of meat with mittens?”
–Neal Page in a dark moment

One of the best road/buddy movies of all time, and certainly the Ultimate Thanksgiving Movie, PT&A treats us to the sight of a man getting picked up by his scrotum, a man accidentally sleeping with his left hand wedged between another man’s thighs, and a hapless car rental clerk being harangued by a venomous monologue containing 18 f-bombs in less than a minute. But underneath all the tomfoolery is a serious, sometimes sad character study of two people cut off from their loved ones, and Learning An Important Lesson: Don’t take what you have for granted. Be Thankful.

Neal Page (Steve Martin), an uptight, aloof advertising executive, is busting his ass to get from a business meeting in New York to his home in Chicago during the busiest two travel days of the year, right before Thanksgiving. Inclement weather, mechanical failures, and all-around bad luck force Neal to improvise his way home using the titular vehicles (and several others much less comfortable.) Circumstances also force him to team up with Del Griffith (John Candy), an overbearing motormouth of a traveling salesman, whose cheery obliviousness conceals a secret tragedy, evidenced by the occasional wounded flash in his eyes when Neal snaps at him, which is often. But for the most part, nothing can get Del down, not even riding in the back of a hillbilly’s pick-up truck on a frigid morning, unable to move for fear of their fellow passenger, a vicious dog that could attack them at any moment. “Bee-yoo-tiful country, though, isn’t it?” Del chirpily observes. Neal, miserable, can only ask “What do you suppose the temperature is?” and receive the matter-of-fact reply, “One.”

We suspect Neal might not be the most hands-on dad, sacrificing time with his family to provide the cushy, upper middle-class life he thinks they want. What they really want, of course, is to have him around more. (Early on, he calls his wife, and as soon as she tells their daughter who is on the phone, the daughter sighs and mumbles “flight delay,” as if this is the 100th time it’s happened.). Neal’s epiphany comes halfway through the movie, and like most real epiphanies, it doesn’t look like one to an outside observer. Staring into space, toying with his lunch, he says very simply and quietly, “I’ve been spending too much time away from home.” Del’s response, revealing more than it intends to, is an off-handed “I haven’t been home in years.” It’s a wonderful, poignant moment, beautifully underplayed by Martin and Candy, and it’s over in a few seconds.

Neal, naturally, ends up inviting his new friend home for Thanksgiving, and the movie closes on a freeze-frame of Del’s smiling face. But it is a sad smile, because he knows when Thanksgiving dinner is over, he must move on and continue his existence of more or less permanent loneliness. Holiday moments are fleeting, folks. Don’t be a cynical jackass. Enjoy them.

BONUS POINTS: John fucking Candy, people. Acknowledge the genius.

#1. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
“We’re going to press on, and have the hap-hap-happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny fuckin’ Kaye! And when Santa squeezes his fat white ass down that chimney tonight, he’s gonna find the jolliest bunch of assholes this side of the nuthouse!”
–Clark W. Griswold blowing off some holiday steam

Chevy Chase had much to atone for: For the better part of a decade (1976-1986), his cocaine-fueled ego, nasty arrogance, and inflated sense of entitlement alienated anyone who crossed his path. But the high-flying comedy star eventually came a cropper with a series of reversals that everyone took vindictive glee in observing: A plunge in box office bankability that would make Whoopi Goldberg wince, a crippling painkiller addiction, a late night talk show so heinous it smelled like Jeffrey Dahmer’s stovetop (and is still spoken of by TV fans in hushed tones.) The final straw was a 2002 Comedy Central roast that was famously brutal, especially in that not one friend bothered to appear with him, onstage or in the audience. (Fellow amigos Steve Martin and Martin Short appeared in a pre-taped bit so half-assed and perfunctory it was the ultimate insult.) The roast was quietly buried by Comedy Central and has never been re-run, or released on DVD. Chase has recently been reduced to doing direct-to-video comedies in Europe. [ED. NOTE: In the time since this was written, Chase has made a low-key comeback of sorts in a supporting role in the pretty-good sitcom Community.]

The rise and (steep, steep) fall of Chevy is now fading old news. It’s time to let him up easy, if for nothing else, then for giving us the Greatest Christmas Comedy of All Time. Chase has stated that the character of Clark W. Griswold forced him to tap into his inner Nice Guy, and allow that facet of his personality to become dominant as he belatedly grew up and walked away from the smoking ruins of his career.

Doting father and husband Clark Griswold (familiar to viewers from two earlier Vacation entries) attempts to have a perfect “fun old-fashioned family Christmas,” by inviting his elderly parents and in-laws for a two-week holiday visit. The results are a perfect screwball farce, a throwback to the anarchic comedies of the 1930s. Unlike more recent comedies where events unfold in an orderly sequence and reach a logical conclusion and everyone grows a little bit (I’m looking at you, Apatow), the comedic situations in NCLV crash into each other like runaway train cars until attractive women are mauled by dogs with sinus conditions, elderly men clutch smoldering toupees to their chests, squirrels are threatened with destruction by hammer, and an ordinarily reasonable housewife greets the SWAT team that just crashed through her picture window by offering the hand that had previously been attached firmly to her husband’s testicles. Toss in an electrocuted cat, some steaming raw sewage, and an odd, pudgy youngster with an “unidentified” lip fungus for good measure. If all of this seems somewhat tasteless, then the true triumph of NCLV becomes clear: it’s not tastelessness for tastelessness’ sake, but woven into a larger tapestry depicting a warm, cheerful celebration of all that Christmas means to the modern American. That this sweet, nostalgic tone is maintained in spite of the grotesque disasters inflicted on poor Clark can be credited to screenwriter/reclusive genius John Hughes [ED. NOTE: RIP] who also gave us Planes, Trains & Automobiles.

At my house, NCLV is LAW. It must be watched, multiple times if possible, come hell or high water. Christmas itself might as well be canceled if a viewing of NCLV does not occur.

BONUS POINTS: All the Vacation movies have good casting, but this one is particularly stellar: Familiar veteran character actors, including Diane Ladd and E.G. Marshall, play the grandparents, Juliette Lewis makes her debut as daughter Audrey, The Big Bang Theory’s Johnny Galecki turns up in an early role, and mega-MILF Beverley D’Angelo burns a hole in the screen as Clark’s wife Ellen.

Repeat viewings are a must. Throw it on while you clean house or work at your computer. For a dash of variety, play it with the Chase-free cast commentary. D’Angelo, who is either audibly intoxicated or has recently suffered a minor stroke, can’t stop obsessing over her hair.

ALSO CHECK OUT: A Christmas Story, Elf, When Harry Met Sally, The Ref

AVOID LIKE THE PLAGUE: Jingle All The Way, Christmas With The Kranks, all Santa Clause sequels, all Home Alone sequels, Deck The Halls, Surviving Christmas, Four Christmases[ED. NOTE: the last one is a new addition to the “avoid” list], and, most likely, whatever holiday comedy is playing at your local multiplex this year.

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