For filmmakers, the only thing better than a big hit is one that turns out to be a perennial hit. If you manage to produce a movie that stokes the general public’s lust for holiday tradition, you’re halfway toward a year-end residual storm. Movie fans can spend large swaths of their lives revisiting films like White Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story when the holiday season rolls around — hence the annual appearance of a few more Christmas-season hopefuls: films that endeavor to not only make some decent coin at the box office but also to live on as holiday traditions.
That may explain why so many Christmas-themed movies are so terrible: because they’re cloying, cynical attempts at capturing what other films have rightly earned. There are dozens of viable options for a Christmas-season movie night, but we keep coming back to the classics — not to mention tangential but no less deserving titles like Die Hard and Gremlins — because they’re well-made films; not just because they take place around Christmastime.
So keep this list of terrible Christmas comedies handy as you flip through the channels this month. It might keep you from wasting two hours on a big fat lump of cinematic coal.
SANTA CLAUS: THE MOVIE (1985)
What’s next after ruining the Superman film franchise in three movies or less? If you’re mega-producers like Ilya and Alexander Salkind, you turn to a public domain character, spend $40 million or so on a truly woeful production laden with awful jokes and endless product placement and dump it into theaters in late November.
We open with a dreary yet disturbing origin story in which a charitable old couple and their reindeer freeze to death (!?!), only to be resurrected by the spirit of Christmas — in the form of a bunch of elves — who whisk the couple off to the North Pole and grant them immortality. And that’s just Act I. We’re then treated to an endless montage of elf activity before settling into a maddeningly boring story about a wayward elf (Dudley Moore) and a shrieking toy tycoon (John Lithgow). None of it makes a lick of sense, unless maybe the viewer is super drunk on Everclear-spiked egg nog.
And to those who claim that this film is not a comedy, I kindly refer you to Dudley Moore’s endless elf puns, e.g. “elf-esteem” and “elf-control.” My case rests.
MIXED NUTS (1994)
You know you’re in for a particularly weird Christmas comedy from the premise alone: Mixed Nuts is about a staff of "wacky” volunteers who run a suicide prevention hotline that’s about to be closed down by a greedy landlord. Yikes. But then you notice the cast list: Steve Martin, Madeline Kahn, Rita Wilson, Adam Sandler, Juliette Lewis, Anthony LaPaglia, Liev Schreiber, Robert Klein, Rob Reiner and a whole bunch more you won’t expect like… Parker Posey? Written by the woman who gave us When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and My Blue Heaven? Really?
There are as many reasons to be intrigued by Mixed Nuts as there are reasons to dislike it. From the wheezing slapstick schtick to the frequently distasteful combination of seasonal silliness and ramshackle black humor, virtually nothing about this movie hits its mark. It seems to be going for an old-school screwball vibe, mixed with some Neil Simonish banter and topped off with an ironically edgy attitude about depression, suicide and murder. Genius!
JINGLE ALL THE WAY (1996)
One of the biggest tricks in the Crappy Christmas Comedy Playbook is that a film can be as crass as it wants — as long as it tosses just a little dash of artificial sweetness and shameless pandering into Act III. And this noxious Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy qualifies on all counts.
Presented with all the grace and warmth that one would expect from the director of Snow Dogs, Are We There Yet? and The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas, Jingle All the Way is an ostensible farce in which an average American dad (that’d be Schwarzenegger) competes with a psychotic mailman (Sinbad) to see who can track down the last remaining “Turbo Kid” toy on Christmas Eve. Obviously one could craft a very pointed satire about the rampant proliferation of merchandising and how it impacts middle-class families during the holidays — but nope. Jingle All the Way is base stupidity of the most puerile variety, as well as a gross love letter to mindless consumerism.
Note of warning: there’s an in-name-only sequel out there. It stars Larry the Cable Guy. I weep for anyone who has seen it.
SANTA WITH MUSCLES (1996)
To call something “the worst film Hulk Hogan ever made” is no small claim. This is, after all, the man who anchored such family classics as Suburban Commando, Mr. Nanny and Three Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain. But there’s something particularly unsettling about this one — and not just because it was co-produced by Jordan Belfort, a man who would go on to be known as “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
It’s about a wealthy jerk (Hogan) who gets bonked on the head and ends up believing that he’s, you guessed it, Santa Claus. Hooo boy. It’s not just that the lead actor cannot act, that the production design looks like a flea market dumpster, or that the screenplay is laden with painful attempts at humor; it’s that title! “Santa with Muscles”? Seriously? Why not Super Santa or Brawler Claus or Santa Saves the Orphanage?
On the other hand, if you’re dying to see a movie in which a rich ass learns that value of Christmas after suffering a psychotic break and thwarting an evil weirdo who wants to destroy an orphanage because it has magical crystals in the basement, here’s your chance. Fans of actors who never say no to anything will no doubt appreciate the contributions from Ed Begley Jr., Clint Howard and Garrett Morris, while That ‘70s Show devotees may enjoy this early collaboration between Don Stark and Mila Kunis. Although I seriously doubt it.
I’LL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS (1998)
With the tiresome Home Improvement (finally) winding down, it only made sense for temporary teen heartthrob Jonathan Taylor Thomas to make a leap towards feature films, but this aimless Christmas comedy didn’t do his career any favors. It’s about a spoiled teenager who is promised a vintage Porsche if he makes it home in time for Christmas (now there’s a nice holiday lesson) but pretty much bumbles and stumbles his way from Los Angeles to New York with the help of four or five wildly clichéd sequences of seasonal sweetness.
Plainly slapped together in a hurry as a vehicle for a kid who was briefly popular with 14-year-old girls, I’ll Be Home for Christmas feels like four or five Christmas-themed sitcoms stitched together and tossed writhing into theaters like a yuletide Human Centipede. If you need a silver lining while struggling through this one, keep an eye out for Gary Cole, Kathleen Freeman and a young and charming Jessica Biel.
JACK FROST (1998)
Michael Keaton, starring as one of those Hollywood bad-dads, dies in a car crash, only to come back to life as a full-sized and sentient snowman. The screenplay, which was cobbled together by no less than four writers and then hacked to bits by a desperate editor, aims for little more than “young kid befriends otherworldly creature” nonsense — yes, producers were still ripping off E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial 16 years after its release — and fails at every turn. The humor isn’t funny, the tone is all over the place, entire subplots and characters simply vanish and the stupid thing can’t even get its own internal logic straight.
Worst of all, at least as far as this article is concerned: the movie is little more than a freakishly misshapen modernization of the Frosty the Snowman story, yet all of the Christmas-related material seems to have hit the editor’s recycle bin. It takes place during the Christmas season; there has clearly been a snow-related miracle of some sort; and there are seasonal touches all over the place. Yet Christmas plays virtually no part in this Christmas flick.
CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS (2004)
A slapstick Christmas farce based on a novel by John Grisham? From the director of America’s Sweethearts and Revenge of the Nerds 2? Starring the inevitably hilarious Tim Allen and well-established physical comedienne Jamie Lee Curtis? Well, damn. Sign me up for 95 interminable minutes of this nonsense.
Little more than a simpering love letter to the act of conformity in suburbia, Christmas with the Kranks poses the following theory: if a suburban couple decide to “skip Christmas” one year and take a cruise over the holiday season, they will be ostracized from their social circles, derided as traitors, harassed by children and generally treated like crap. It’s not just the mirthless and vapid Chris Columbus screenplay; it’s also that Allen and Curtis combine to create one of the most breathtakingly unappealing couples that Christmastime cinema has ever seen. The film is noxious for 85 minutes, tacks on a wholly unearned attempt at sincerity in the last five and leaves a rotten taste in your mouth for about an hour.
SURVIVING CHRISTMAS (2004)
A millionaire with no friends (Ben Affleck) decides to rent the family that lives in his childhood home so he can recapture magical Christmas emotions of yesteryear. Or some such nonsense. The premise could be overlooked as pure sitcom-level silliness if it didn’t feel so much like the infamously tacky 1982 farce The Toy — a film in which a rotten rich kid with no friends “rents” a grown man for use as a plaything.
Also: I don’t know whether a topic like “indentured servitude” really gels with what we’d like to see in a Christmas comedy, but the bottom line is that Surviving Christmas is a shallow, mean-spirited, and thoroughly humorless excursion through the realm of cringe humor and rotten slapstick. Do we really need yet another Christmas movie with incest, porno and dick jokes? As is often the case with these atrocious seasonal comedies, one cast member does manage to survive unscathed (in this case it’s Catherine O'Hara, who has salvaged more than a few rotten comedies), but it’s really just a big, tiresome collection of blather, platitudes and a wholly unearned finale full of wildly ineffective sweetness.
Finally, any film that wastes the comedic talents of Christina Applegate deserves our collective disdain.
DECK THE HALLS (2006)
What is it with contemporary Christmas comedies being populated almost entirely with hateful jerks? It’s not as if Christmas with the Kranks, Surviving Christmas and Deck the Halls have enough in the humor/sincerity department to begin with, so why are all the characters such obnoxious imbeciles? A movie only needs one Scrooge, after all, and it helps if that character is crafted with some small semblance of sincerity.
Basically a blatant rip-off of 1981’s dark suburban satire Neighbors, this yuletide clanger pits two plainly disinterested actors (Danny DeVito and Matthew Broderick) against one another in a contest to see who can be the most obnoxious jerkwad imaginable. DeVito’s character is a moronic sociopath and Broderick’s is a hateful snob, which raises the question of who the audience is supposed to care about. The wives are plot devices at best, which is a shame because one of them — that’d be Kristen Chenoweth — is the sole source of color and energy that manages to escape from the horrific vacuum of wretchedness that is Deck the Halls.
Try to find an actual plot thread that runs through the whole thing. You won’t. The bulk of the film is dedicated to the idea that DeVito wants to craft the world’s brightest Christmas display, whereas Broderick wishes to prevent this sort of behavior, but that could also be all that remained after the film’s endless treks to the editorial department. And hey, nice incest jokes, guys. Surely that’s what PG-rated Christmas comedies are all about, right?
FRED CLAUS (2007)
There was a time, not so very long ago, when I was a staunch defender of Vince Vaughn. It was during the late 1990s, actually, right around the Swingers / The Lost World / Clay Pigeons era. I never guessed that one day I’d come to dread the arrival of a new Vince Vaughn movie like a trip to the dentist, but that’s pretty much what happened. One can withstand only so many films like Couples Retreat (2009), The Watch (2012), The Internship (2013), Delivery Man (2013), and Unfinished Business (2015) before suffering from horrific Vaughn-fueled nightmares.
And Fred Claus is pretty much where all this “Vince Vaughn as a comedic leading man” nonsense got started in the first place. The idea of the eternally abrasive Vaughn stepping into a Scrooge / Grinch character sounds fun in theory, but as proven here (not to mention in the following year’s Four Christmases), the actor is simply too belligerent to warrant much goodwill. Not to mention that the premise — that Santa Claus has a rotten brother called Fred — is barely amusing enough to warrant a Saturday Night Live sketch.
Unfortunately, Fred Claus pretty much typifies the cynical nature of most contemporary Christmas comedies: a whole lot of crass, casual cruelty, followed by some treacly music and shallow cliches about kindness this or family that blah blah blah.
And people wonder why Die Hard is considered a holiday classic these days.
So there you have it. And just to prove that I’m no Grinch when it comes to Christmas comedies, here’s a list of ones I really like:
A Christmas Story (1983) — Like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. Sweet, warm, and really funny.
Trading Places (1983) — It’s Christmas in Philadelphia as Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd contend with lost fortunes, rotten tycoons, and devious prostitutes.
Gremlins (1984) — And that town was so damn cute before the little monsters invaded.
Scrooged (1988) — A fantastic late-'80s Dickens reboot with Bill Murray as the yuletide jerkwad who learns to appreciate the holidays after a bunch of ghosts drop by.
Christmas Vacation (1989) — One of Chevy’s best. Little more than a feature-length sitcom, but it’s pretty damn funny.
Home Alone (1990) — Notable mainly for its live-action cartoon-style slapstick mayhem, this family comedy also throws a nice dash of Christmas spirit into the mix.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) — Not only a funny Muppet movie and a surprisingly on-point Dickens rendition… it also features one of Michael Caine’s best comedic performances.
The Ref (1994) — Denis Leary and a stellar ensemble anchor this dark but effective Christmas comedy.
Bad Santa (2003) — As you could probably tell from my “naughty list,” I prefer my Christmas comedies to lean on the wholesome side — but I’ll make an exception for this one. Raunchy, nasty, and frequently profane, but it also has a nice heart beneath all that R-rated bluster.
Elf (2003) — Holds up remarkably well on repeat viewings, which is something a classic Christmas comedy has to do.