‘A Merry Friggin’ Christmas’
Director: Tristram Shapeero
Stars: Joel McHale, Robin Williams
1 Globe (out of 5)
Even the best performers have off-nights. The profoundly unfunny dysfunctional holiday comedy “A Merry Friggin’ Christmas” features a bunch of them doing just that. It’s a laundry list of talented people, more or less all of them firing blanks. It happens, and this is small — and, at 73 minutes before end credits, short — enough that it does little to taint the brands of Joel McHale, Tim Heidecker, Wendi McLendon-Covey and Robin Williams, whose turn can’t help but be colored by what happened before this saw release. None of this makes it better or more tolerable, but it’s the kind of effort so weak that hating it seems cruel, if not unnecessary.
It is, for one thing, a film at war with itself. It wants to be “Bad Santa” — and even brought in one of its stars, Lauren Graham, as a ringer — but it also wants to be a sincere Christmas movie. Indeed, Joel McHale’s Boyd is both usual sarcastic Joel McHale and a delusionally upbeat, emphatically pro-Christmas Clark Griswold type. Boyd is a family man but one who hates his extended family — chiefly his father, Mitch (Williams), a nasty alcoholic and general curmudgeon who makes Polack jokes, calls people “Nancy” and insists on smoking stogies around the asthmatic Boyd.
Convoluted circumstances force Boyd to drag his family to his old family house to spend Christmas with the whole fam, which at least includes a mega-doting mom played by Candice Bergen. The always stylish Bergen is made so homely that she’s virtually unrecognizable, but she’s also out of her element; this is a film of professional ad-libbers. Then again, no one’s bringing their A-game. Most fall back on lazy stereotypes, from a grimy, bourbon-soaked Santa (Oliver Platt) to Heidecker as a one-note redneck with bowl cut, present as a cut-rate knockoff of Randy Quaid’s Cousin Eddie from the “Vacation” movies. No one seems particularly motivated — except for Clark Duke, as Boyd’s much younger brother. He has a loopy aloofness and perpetual optimism that actually produces a few laughs.
As said earlier, Williams’ death casts a strange, unintended light on this trifle. But one doesn’t need to think about what happened offscreen to see some genuine darkness in his performance. When Williams is being funny here, it’s not particularly inspired; Mitch is obnoxious and over-the-top, trying too hard to be offensive. But when Williams/Mitch quiets down you can see real despair — as though both character and actor were overcompensating in an effort to mask true suffering.
At the height of his movie popularity, circa “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Patch Adams,” Williams often had a twinkle-eyed sadness that seemed, at the time, merely maudlin, even calculated — a cheap way to elicit tears. It doesn’t look that way now, but in “A Merry Friggin’ Christmas,” especially knowing what was to come next, you can see profound self-hatred and unhappiness. Naturally the fights between father and son — who are, thanks to more convoluted circumstances, forced to hit the road for an all-night mission — occasionally turn serious and ugly. That may have been intended as pure audience manipulation, demanding we care about a rote scenario. But there’s a realness to Williams’ work, one that “A Merry Friggin’ Christmas” in no way deserves.
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