Like a fatally snarled string of Christmas lights, "Deck the Halls" promises holiday cheer but delivers only frustration. These days, movies about the exasperating side of the holiday season, the suffocating shopping-mall hordes and concentrated family dysfunction, are more plentiful than those extolling its virtues. The Christmas spirit, whatever that might be, has been reduced to a third-act deus ex machina, a jolly cloud that descends from the heavens to save squabbling grinches from themselves.
The self-proclaimed Christmas czar of a cozy New England hamlet, Steve Finch (Matthew Broderick) has his candy canes all in a row. He chairs the town's winter carnival, grows his own pine trees and dolls up his family in matching sweaters for the annual Christmas card photo. In short, he's a Ned Flanders just waiting for his Homer Simpson.
Steve's boisterous bête noire arrives in the form of Buddy Hall (Danny DeVito), a brash loudmouth whose expansive gregariousness and buxom wife (Kristin Chenoweth) quickly clash with his new neighbor's picket-fence prudery. Whether it's because of the chilly welcome or a Napoleon complex, Buddy becomes obsessed with making his mark on this storybook town and, while he's at it, the world. Cue the light bulb over his head, or rather several thousand.
As Buddy's sloped roof starts to resemble an NFL scoreboard, Steve naturally takes exception, but his passive-aggressive barbs fall on deaf ears, and the battle of wills soon transgresses the bounds of diplomacy. Buddy and Steve reduce themselves to the level of wild animals, marking their territory with stuffed reindeer and glow-in-the-dark snowmen.
From the start, it's clear that the sympathies of "Deck the Halls" lie with Buddy's agreeable crassness, which may be why DeVito comes off as likable and Broderick seems as glazed and salty as a Christmas ham. Sitcom-honed director John Whitesell delivers jokes as if he were pitching ice balls , seeming less concerned with making the audience laugh than beating it to a festive pulp. Although the movie nominally endorses the idea of a holiday commemorated by the no-budget pleasures of hands clasped in the snow and voices raised in song, a neat bait-and-switch swings the focus back to the calculated commercialism it both celebrates and embodies.
MPAA rating: PG for some crude and suggestive humor, and for language. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. In general release.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun