Dir: Joe Roth. US. 2004.98mins

The holiday-themed comedyChristmas With The Kranks sees itself a big-hearted, slightly sappymovie about family and community, shared values, good cheer and the true spiritof the season. But the story's Stepford Wives-like emphasis ontraditional values and communal approval is enough to make one queasy.Considering the cultural climate in the post-election US, the movie'sinescapable message seems to be: 'Don't even think about marching to adifferent drummer! Conform, conform, conform!'

Given its reliance on broadcomedy - silly pratfalls, familiar gags, exaggerated facial expressions, mildbut obvious sexual innuendo - the film is intended for a strictly mainstreamaudience (as opposed to the black comedy appeal of, for example, Bad Santa).The recent Surviving Christmas targeted a similar audience and tanked: ChristmasWith The Kranks is likely to play better, at least if indications of earlypreviews are anything to go by, when it opens in the US on Nov 23.

Seasonal comedies rarelytravel that well and it's highly unlikely that Christmas With The Krankswill prove to be an exception: while Tim Allen's previous Christmas features, The Santa Clause (1994) and The Santa Clause 2 (2002) took,respectively, $190m and $173m worldwide, less than a quarter of their take camefrom international.

Based on the novel SkippingChristmas by John Grisham - taking a break from legal thrillers - the filmconcerns a tight-knit neighbourhood in suburban Chicago where every family onthe block celebrates the season in elaborate fashion. Every house is strewnwith miles of lights and decorations; every roof sports a giant, illuminatedFrosty the Snowman; every dinner table boasts a Honey Ham (apparently no Jewsnor Moslems reside on Hemlock Street). And everybody looks forward to Lutherand Nora Kranks' fabulous, wouldn't-be-Christmas-without-it Christmas Eveparty.

Except that this year - thefirst year that the Kranks' 23-year old daughter Blair won't be coming home forthe holidays - Luther and Nora (Allen and Curtis) decide to forgo Christmas,taking the money they normally spend on holiday frivolity and splurging,instead, on a Caribbean vacation. That means: not buying a Christmas tree, notsending out holiday cards, not putting Frosty on the roof, not evencontributing to the Policemen's Benevolent Society.

The neighbours are aghast;then angry. People will have nowhere to party on Christmas Eve. And HemlockStreet can't possibly win the annual Yuletide decorations competition unlessevery house participates.

The peer pressure kicks intohigh gear as the Kranks are cajoled, entreated, denounced, snubbed andChristmas caroled into exhaustion. They even make the front page of the localpaper: 'Kranks skipping Xmas.'

Then, early on the 24th, Norareceives a telephone call that Blair is coming home after all - and bringingher new boyfriend. Nora doesn't want her daughter to know that they had plannedto by-pass Christmas this year, but the only way the Kranks can whip theirhouse and yard into shape and prepare for their annual party before Blairarrives is if the entire community pitches in.

The film does not mean to beoffensive, but the premise is insidious. By doing something different thisyear, by not keeping in lock step with the majority, the Kranks are pilloried.The film views them as 'lacking the proper Christmas spirit.' Nora,who wilts under her neighbours' criticisms, attacks her husband forselfishness.

Aside from the terriblemessage it communicates, the film relies on standard sight gags and stale punchlines. Luther is drenched when a store canopy breaks - right after he hasrefused the offer of an umbrella. Nora bribes another customer to get hisholiday ham - then watches in horror as it falls to the ground, rolls out ofthe car park and into the road where it gets squashed by a truck.

Curtis, who has beenfocusing on family-friendly films for the past few years, always comes acrossas a likeable person and a good sport but she so overdoes her facialexpressions here that she appears to be mugging for the camera.

Allen proves a lot morenatural. And despite some real career lows - Big Trouble, JoeSomebody, For Richer Or Poorer - the actor still has fans,especially when it comes to his Christmas films. Supporting players, includingAykroyd and Walsh, are not much more than caricatures. Only Franz, as Walsh'swife, comes across as a believable and sympathetic character.

Director Joe Roth, workingfrom a screenplay adaptation by Chris Columbus, foregoes any pretence ofsubtlety here, apparently content with the broadly comedic tone of theone-dimensional script. His films over the past decade, both as director andproducer, reveal a soft spot for nostalgia that too often feels forced,juvenile or just plain tepid - or all three, as is the case here. The truespirit of Christmas' Bah, humbug!

Prod cos: 1492 Pictures Prods, Revolution Studios
US dist:
Sony Pictures
Int'l dist:
Columbia TriStar FDI
Exec prods:
Charles Newirth,Bruce A. Block
Chris Columbus, MarkRadcliffe, Michael Barnathan
Chris Columbus, based on thenovel Skipping Christmas, by John Grisham
Don Burgess
Prod des:
Garreth Stover
Nick Moore
John Debney
Main cast:
Tim Allen, Jamie LeeCurtis, Dan Aykroyd, Austin Pendleton. M. Emmett Walsh, Elizabeth Franz