One of my family’s more consistent holiday traditions is watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation every December, although we’re far from the only people to do so.
Ever since that movie was released in 1989, it has gone on to become required viewing in a lot of households, due in large part to the film’s memorable cast and John Hughes’ crackerjack script.
Even if you’ve never seen Christmas Vacation before, chances are you’ve already experienced a lot of its sights and sounds through cultural osmosis, like Chevy Chase’s epic meltdown during the movie’s climax.
In fact, Christmas Vacation was so influential that director John Whitesell decided to recycle a lot of the same story beats and plot elements for his own holiday-themed comedy Deck the Halls in 2006, although he neglected to capture the same wit and heart that made that original film so memorable in the first place.
For those of you who missed it, the plot Deck the Halls revolves around two rival neighbours played by Danny DeVito and Matthew Broderick, who start to butt heads due to their conflicting beliefs on how best to celebrate the holidays.
While Broderick’s Steve just wants to organize a quiet family Christmas, DeVito’s Buddy strives to make the biggest public spectacle possible, dressing his house up in hundreds of thousands of lights in the hopes that the dwelling can be seen from space.
As this war of attrition gradually escalates, both men’s families get caught in the crossfire, which threatens to tear them apart for good.
While it may not seem like a watered-down Christmas Vacation rip-off on the surface, Deck the Halls contains way too many similarities to the 1989 classic for it to be a coincidence.
Not only is a father’s infatuation with creating the perfect old-fashioned family Christmas the main narrative through line in both films, but a variety of jokes and plot points are also shared between the two. These parallels include:
-A character obsessing over decorating their house in as many lights as possible.
-A holiday advent calendar being used to chronicle the passage of time.
-A Christmas tree expedition going horribly awry.
-An extended gag where the main character loses control going down a snowy hill.
-Growing tension between neighbours resulting in lots of property damage.
I’m sure there’s other similarities I missed, but the point is that Deck the Halls’ three screenwriters (Matt Corman, Chris Ord and Don Rhymer) did their best to lift material from Hughes without attempting to replicate his ability to balance slapstick humor and relatable family drama.
Because of this, all the movie has to offer is a series of cartoony pratfalls and one-liners that occasionally entertain, but don’t stick with you on any meaningful level.
Admittedly, Deck the Halls did make me laugh on a number of occasions, although most of those chuckles could be chalked up to the movie’s over reliance on physical comedy.
I’m an easy man to please when it comes to this style of humour, and the filmmakers at least knew how to stage a lot of these low brow gags in a satisfactory manner.
However, the same cannot be said for a lot of the movie’s verbal jokes, which usually land with a dull thud due to how they are put together in post.
It seems like the editors always leave a moment of silence at the end of every punchline to give the audience room to laugh, even though this technique spectacularly backfires more often than not due to awkward it is.
But the film’s biggest sin, by far, is its uneven tone that occasionally switches between wholesome family entertainment and raunchy sex comedy.
Even though Deck the Halls is rated “G” by the MPAA, the screenwriters somehow managed to get away with loading up their script with a bunch of suggestive jokes that are quite blunt and not clever in the slightest.
Normally, this sort of thing wouldn’t bother me, since studios like Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks always sneak some dirty joke into their children’s films.
But with Deck the Halls, it seems like these gags are clumsily crowbarred into the movie for no real rhyme or reason other than to alienate the movie’s target demographic.
One of the more mean-spirited recurring bits in the film involves the local police sheriff, whose propensity to wear lady’s underwear creeps Broderick out to the point where he doesn’t report any of DeVito’s various bylaw infractions.
Because, according to these writers, nothing gets people in the holiday spirit more than judging others for what they decide to wear underneath their work clothes.
The absolute worst example of this approach to comedy comes later on in the film, when Broderick and DeVito unknowingly cat call their respective underaged daughters at a winter fair, with Broderick’s character even going so far as to yell “who’s your daddy?”
Not only is the act of inserting an incest joke into a family film a slight against human decency, but this scene doesn’t even make sense from a script-writing perspective, since neither character have displayed any outwardly pervy behaviour up until this point in the story.
Outside of testing my gag reflex, this one scene actually exemplifies why Christmas Vacation works and Deck the Halls doesn’t.
Sure, Hughes’ film featured a lot of off-colour jokes and some questionable decision-making from its protagonist, but that story was at least anchored in some recognizable holiday season struggles that most people can relate to.
Deck the Halls, on the other hand, is an absolute farce, mostly due to the fact that its main characters are completely unlikable and have problems that no one can identify with.
For instance, DeVito’s goal to ensure that his house can be seen from space is treated like it is a noble endeavor instead of a rabid act of consumerism.
Now, this element could have potentially worked if the screenwriters turned the story into a satire about Christmas commercialism gone amok. But I think that idea went right over the filmmakers’ heads and they decided to take such a shallow ambition at face value.
With all that being said, I don’t think Deck the Halls is as bad as a lot of other critics say it is, especially since sites like Vogue, Paste Magazine, and Rotten Tomatoes currently rank it as one of the worst holiday movies of all time.
While the film is definitely vapid and soulless, it did manage to elicit a few laughs from me, which is more than welcome as this dumpster fire of a year finally comes to a close.
However, I will probably never get the impulse to watch Deck the Halls ever again, whereas the movie it was clearly trying to rip off (Christmas Vacation) still has a permanent place on my annual holiday watch-list.
Corner store companion:
Holiday M & M’s (because DeVito played the human version of an M & M in a Super Bowl commercial one time)
-Release date: Nov. 22, 2006
-Budget: $51 million
-Box Office Gross: $35,093,569 (domestic), $47,232,776 (worldwide)
-Film critic Richard Roeper ranked Deck the Halls as the sixth worst movie of 2006 (alongside Unaccompanied Minors) during an episode of At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper.
–Deck the Halls picked up three nominations at the 2007 Golden Raspberry Awards, including Worst Supporting Actress (Kristin Chenoweth), Worst Supporting Actor (Danny DeVito) and Worst Excuse for Family Entertainment.
-Surprise cameo: Kal Penn (of Harold and Kumar fame) shows up briefly to play a software engineer whose program, My Earth, is being utilized to determine if DeVito’s Christmas decorations can be seen from space. The most notable thing about this performance is Penn decided to adopt a terrible British accent for some reason.