1½ stars (out of four)
Gather round the fireplace, kids, and I'll tell you a Christmas story brimming with cliched life lessons and manic, empty energy. It will hold your attention for 90 minutes or so, long enough for your parents to accomplish some serious holiday shopping. Beyond this minor accomplishment, however, "Deck the Halls" has little to recommend it.
Matthew Broderick, whose movie career has apparently careened completely off the rails, plays Steve Finch, an optometrist in the idyllic hamlet of Cloverdale, Mass., where the locals are endearingly wacky and the downtown movie theater shows "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Miracle on 34th Street."
Outwardly mild-mannered, Steve is actually a tightly wound compulsive, planning not only his family's celebration of Christmas but that of the whole town right down to the last holly branch. Kristin Davis, taking her trademark deer-in-the-headlights acting style to Olympian heights, is his long-suffering wife, Kelly, who goes along with Steve's obsessions without complaint. One day, a new neighbor (Danny DeVito) moves in across the street, and his gauche ways and overuse of decorative lights threaten the Finches' storybook environs. Steve is outraged, prompting an unspeakably juvenile and supremely tiresome battle to control the neighborhood decorating scheme. This is a typical Hollywood "struggle," in which even violent or dangerous actions have no consequence and donkey droppings magically disappear (don't ask). And yes, in case you're wondering, we saw this nearly 20 years ago in the Griswolds' "Christmas Vacation."
Beyond the Steve vs. Buddy battle for the Martha Stewart award, the movie offers several secondary and wildly underdeveloped plotlines -- Kelly is an aspiring cookbook writer, the Finches' preadolescent son Carter (Dylan Blue) is depressed, but still awfully cute! Meanwhile, overprotected teenage daughter Madison is surreptitiously dating Navy ensigns. Alia Shawkat plays Madison with the dry delivery that worked so well on the late, great "Arrested Development," but feels uncomfortably out of place in this movie's irony-free zone.
Speaking of miscasting, Kristin Chenoweth (the Tony Award-winning Broadway actress) is stunningly ill-suited to play Buddy's loveable but scantily dressed wife, a part better suited to someone like Amy Sedaris, who might be able to wring some humor out of the thankless role.
Halfway through this labored "can't we all just get along?" effort, I found myself daydreaming about Christmas movies past, including fare such as "A Christmas Story" and, if we're being completely honest, "A Very Merry Muppet Christmas." Nobody expects every holiday film to ascend to classic status; in fact, we're happy to let most fade from memory as soon as the decorations are taken off the trees. We can, however, demand they live up to a certain level of fun, thereby allowing parents to watch along with their kids without plotting the most direct route to the exit.
'Deck the Halls'
Directed by John Whitesell; screenplay by Matt Corman and Chris Ord; photographed by Mark Irwin; edited by Paul Hirsch; music by George S. Clinton; production design by Bill Brzeski; produced by Arnon Milchan, Michael Costigan and Whitesell. A Twentieth Century Fox release; opens Wednesday. Running time: 1:35. MPAA rating: PG (for some crude and suggestive humor, and for language).
Buddy Hall - Danny DeVito
Steve Finch - Matthew Broderick
Kelly Finch - Kristin Davis
Tia Hall - Kristin Chenoweth