The first surprise was that this film is based on a John Grisham story. The second surprise is the film itself. I badly misread the cues in the screenplay in the first part of the film. When the Kranks see off their daughter to Peru to work for the Peace Corps and decide that they will go on a cruise at Christmas by themselves and save money by not having Christmas parties or gifts or house decorations, it seemed to me a very good idea. It was a blow against the commercialisation of Christmas. It was a protest against gaudy festoons and the clichés of 'the festive season'. How wrong could I be? Totally.
Tim Allen (looking severe for most of the film until a final private generous gesture that gave some decency to the story) and Jamie Lee Curtis (looking flustered, pratfalling and trying to cope with her daughter's fist Christmas away from home) are the Kranks. The immediately get the cold shoulder treatment at work and in the street. Apparently, with their decision to forego this kind of Christmas, they are the most self-centred, self-absorbed, un-community-minded, most derelict of civic sense, insidious destroyers of the
American way of life. In fact, the Yuletide gruppenfuehrer of their street (Dan Aykroyd) leads the denunciations with a self-satisfied, eyebrow-raised expression of disbelief at this blatant expression of suburban treason. His stormtroopers begin to harass the Kranks. They are sorely tried but stick to their decision. No decorations, no Frosty the 7-foot Snowman on their roof, no lights.
Suddenly, their daughter announces she is coming home for Christmas and you have the fastest re-wind of attitudes in cinema history. They buy desperately, they borrow decorations and a Christmas tree from neighbours (their previous refusal to buy their usual tree is greeted with as much shock as if they had publicly announced they did not belief in God or the Stars and Stripes), Frosty comes out of the cellar - and everybody (who had until five seconds earlier were loathing the Kranks) pitches in to help out. Even Santa turns up to celebrate.
In thirty years time, cinema historians could be examining the sub-text of Christmas with the Kranks, seeing it as an allegory of G.W.Bush's America. Family values are supreme, enterprise is to be rewarded, all decent people appreciate Christmas - even though, with the separation of Church and State, there is absolutely no reference at all to Jesus or the Nativity, it is a completely secular Christmas of good cheer. The production notes tell us that director Joe Roth wanted to explore the 'mythology of Christmas' - but this is all he could come up with. It is Christmas without Christ. And if you don't follow what the all-American majority demand, you are pariahs. The review in London's Metro newspaper ended smartly, "Conform, all he faithful'.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is the International President of SIGNIS: the World Association for Catholic Communications and an Associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.