It’s the holiday season! And I thought I’d put into words what has been mulling around in my mind for a few years now so I can stop thinking about random Christmas movies and get back to working on my current WIP.
Every Christmas season we watch the same group of movies at our house. It is fun, it’s familiar, it’s tradition. And my wife loves Christmas with the Kranks. When it was first released in 2004 I thought it was cute but nothing special. And I more or less dismissed it. But after watching it year after year for what has been thirteen years now, I can’t help but analyze and pick it apart, like I do with anything I’m exposed to over and over again.
I can’t just watch a movie to enjoy it, I want to understand it, innately. I want to get all the deeper themes, to figure out what makes the story unique. In a way, I almost feel like a literary agent at times 😆 (I’m sorry, that is an insult to Lit Agents; I know your jobs are incredibly difficult and shouldn’t be compared to a man sitting on his couch watching a movie). And what I have discovered after years and years of watching this movie is it fundamentally doesn’t work on a storytelling level.
Allow me to explain.
Currently, I am deep in the study of story structure: what makes a story, how they work, and how to identify their parts in existing media. I firmly believe a solid structure is the difference between a mediocre story and a truly great one. And each story, no matter what it is, has the same essential elements. But the problem is Christmas with the Kranks violates some of these elements, and the story suffers as a result. So lets go through the beats and hopefully you’ll see what I mean. Spoilers Ahead.
The story begins with Luther and Nora Krank watching their daughter, Blair, leave for the Peace Corps on Thanksgiving. This is the inciting incident of the story – the initial act which kick-starts the action. As a result, Luther, depressed without his daughter around for the first time in 23 years, decides he and Nora would be better off taking a cruise and skipping the entire holiday. After some discussion with Nora, and realizing they will save money this way, the pact is made. Okay, this is around the quarter mark in the movie and what is typically known as the point of no return. Also it is sometimes called the key plot point. After this, the character’s lives will no longer be the same. Okay, so far, so good. We have our inciting incident and our key plot point. Things are going well.
Soon, the ramifications of Luther’s decision begin to catch up with him. His neighbors begin to resent him for not participating in their community events, and various acquaintances who depend on money from holiday sales openly mock him and Nora. Probably the most prominent is Vic Frohmeyer, the “ward boss” of the neighborhood and overt spokesman for the neighbors. This is the first pinch point for Luther and Nora. Christmas is pushing back against them and they have to work even harder to avoid it. Again, this is right in line with a solid story progression.
Despite constant push back from the neighborhood, friends, co-workers and even the Church, Luther and Nora stand their ground. This is about the mid-point of the movie and constitutes re-dedication on part of the hero(s). For me this wasn’t as clear as it could be, but I don’t find it a big violation either. It works as intended.
Unfortunately for Luther (not so much Nora), Christmas Eve morning arrives and they receive a call from Blair, who is coming home for Christmas! With her new fiance in tow! Oh no! To me, this feels like the second pinch point for the movie, which will move us towards Darkest Night (more on that in a minute). Christmas has finally had enough and is going to force Luther and Nora to celebrate no matter what. Still good. But then things start to go off the rails.
Luther and Nora begin to scramble to throw something together at the last minute. They have to have their annual Christmas party, but without anyone to attend or any food to eat, what will Blair think? They can’t disappoint her. Nora tries to get her signature Hickory Honey Ham from the store only to be thwarted (twice!) and ends up with smoked trout instead. Luther is nearly arrested searching for a tree and in the midst of putting up the holiday decorations on the roof, falls off, almost killing himself if not for a lucky bit of rope wrapped around his foot.
The police come, the fire department cuts him down, and Luther and Nora sit in the ambulance, defeated. There is no hope. This is what is known as Darkest Night. Roughly 75% of the way through the movie, this moment represents the hero(s) reaching the bottom, and wanting to give up. It is the moment in which most stories hinge, where the protagonist will rise up to face their challenge. And this is where this movie runs into its problems.
Instead of looking inside himself at this moment and realizing he never should have tried to “skip Christmas”, and be willing to apologize and ask for help, Luther stays seated on the ambulance while Vic begins directing everyone to help out, for Blair’s sake if not Luther’s. Nora is very appreciative, but Luther continues to sulk. And this is the problem. Because, later in the movie, Luther finally gets it. But it takes a botched toast in front of his daughter, and not one but TWO attempts to give a gift to his cranky neighbor for him to finally let go of the cruise and do something for someone else.
The biggest problem this movie has is the climax is lost because Luther doesn’t rise to the occasion when he should. And this is why this movie has always felt off to me. Darkest night should pave the way to the climax, because it gives us a satisfying resolution. I think if Luther had risen up in the ambulance, apologized, and asked his neighbors for help then, it would have given us a much more cohesive and rounded story. Instead we have this weird build-up to a speech in which again he doesn’t thank anyone and really fails as the hero of this story.
I’ve never read the original John Grisham book from which this movie is adapted, but I wonder if it faces the same structural problems. Somehow I doubt it. This feels like a last-minute executive re-write based on some misguided focus group data. It just doesn’t work for the story. I think there is a similar (but not nearly so egregious) issue in The Santa Clause, another Tim Allen classic. But that’s another post.
So there you go. About 75% of this movie works. The final 25% does not, at least not for me as someone studying these things. But my wife, who has no reason to know story structure completely enjoys the film. And maybe now that I have written all these thoughts down in this extra-long post, it won’t bother me so much next year.
But I doubt it.