D: Tristram Shapeero / 88m
Cast: Joel McHale, Lauren Graham, Robin Williams, Candice Bergen, Clark Duke, Oliver Platt, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Tim Heidecker, Pierce Gagnon, Bebe Wood, Ryan Lee, Amara Miller, Mark Proksch, Amir Arison
As a child, Boyd Mitchler (McHale) had Christmas, and his belief in Santa, ruined for him by his alcoholic father, Virgil (Williams). As an adult with a family of his own – wife Luann (Graham), daughter Vera (Wood) and son Douglas (Gagnon) – Boyd is determined to make Christmas special for all of them, but especially for Douglas, who still believes in Santa. Boyd figures he can keep Douglas’s belief going for one more Yuletide before that particular layer of innocence is stripped away.
When his brother, Nelson (Duke) calls and says that he has a son, and the christening is on December 24th, and he wants Boyd to be a godfather, it means only one thing: Boyd and his family will need to spend Christmas with Boyd’s parents, including his father who he’s estranged from. Also there will be Boyd’s sister, Shauna (McLendon-Covey), and her family: husband Dave (Heidecker), son Rance (Lee), and daughter Pam (Miller). It isn’t long before Boyd and Virgil are butting heads and letting old animosities interfere with the festive cheer.
With the children all bedded down for the night, and Douglas reassured that Santa will still find him, even though he’s not at home, Boyd discovers that they’ve left Douglas’s presents back at home. Though it’s late, Boyd decides he can make it home, collect the presents, and be back in time for when the children wake up. He sets off, but he doesn’t get far before his car breaks down. Virgil comes to his rescue and together they head for Boyd’s home. Along the way both men begin to understand each other a little better, while back at Virgil’s, Luann and Boyd’s mother, Donna (Bergen), try to come up with some alternative presents in case Boyd doesn’t get back in time.
Of note for being the first of three projects to be released after Robin Williams’ death, A Merry Friggin’ Christmas looks, on paper, to be a sure-fire piece of Yuletide entertainment. It has all the ingredients needed: a dysfunctional family trying to get along, a great ensemble cast, a race against time, pratfalls, verbal insults, two kids you’d cross the road to avoid – even if they were your own, and a seasonal message of goodwill to all men (especially if they’re hobo Santas played by Oliver Platt).
Sadly, what the movie doesn’t have is a focused or funny script, or sharper direction. The script, by first-timer Michael Brown, provides a reasonable enough set up for what follows, but struggles to move things along or keep matters interesting, and loses what little momentum it has pretty quickly. By the time Boyd hits the road, any real drama has been sucked out of the movie, along with most of the humour, and it’s left to McHale, Williams and Duke to provide what little energy it retains. The antipathy between father and son is reduced to their calling each other “Sally”, and aside from one moment of unexpected pathos, is resolved so easily the viewer could be forgiven for wondering how they remained at odds for so long. Likewise the matter of Boyd and Luann’s increasingly celibate marriage, referred to twice but never properly dealt with (and just one of several loose ends the movie never ties up, like Boyd hating his job).
Just as unsatisfactory is the humour, or lack of it. When you have someone of the calibre of Robin Williams in your movie and it’s meant to be a comedy, the worst thing you can do is give him dialogue that he can’t do anything with, and restrict any chances of physical hilarity to zero. All Williams is required to do is snarl off some less than witty insults and comments, and then, later, act wounded and upset. It’s a waste of his talent, but it’s also a measure of the man himself that even though the viewer will realise quickly this is the case, they’ll keep watching in the hope Williams pulls something out of the bag and saves the day (or should that be “seizes the day”?).
The rest of the cast fare just as badly, with McHale looking miserable throughout (but then who wouldn’t be if your character comes across as a jerk for most of the movie?), Graham looking non-plussed, Bergen doing her best to make the material sound better than it is, and Duke doing his lovable schlub routine for what seems like the hundredth time in just this year alone. Platt is almost unrecognisable as a hobo Santa, while the one member of the cast who manages to make something of their role is Proksch, who rescues the movie whenever he’s on screen as a trooper who’s always around when Boyd is speeding.
Such a leaden endeavour isn’t all the fault of the script, though. Making his feature debut, TV veteran Shapeero drops the ball right at the beginning and never manages to retrieve it. Scenes play out with all of their vitality drained out of them, and there’s a noticeable lack of consistency in both the tone and the rhythm of the movie, making it seem disjointed and like a jigsaw puzzle with several of the pieces missing (there’s also the sense that he’s left the cast to interpret their roles without any input from him at all). There are also too many occasions where the camera’s focus is on the wrong person altogether.
Rating: 3/10 – ending up as more of a ho-hum dirge than a ho-ho-ho comedy, A Merry Friggin’ Christmas fails to deliver in almost every department, and should come with a warning that expectations need to be lowered before watching it; slow-going and less than engaging, this is a Christmas movie that doesn’t even provide any snow to add to the effect.