Review – A Cinematic Lump of Coal (“A Merry Friggin’ Christmas”)

I won’t pretend that A Merry Friggin’ Christmas is any good. There’s no reason to. Even by the modest standards of Christmas films in general, this film is below average at best. It’s a mashed together collection of fragmented scenes that resemble an 82 minute episode of a sitcom that we’ve never seen before and never want to see again. Unless of course that would mean the resurrection of Robin Williams, but I think I’m finally at the point where I’m no longer hopeful of that happening.

Honestly, I know a good movie is buried in here. Or at least a halfway decent one. And it’s all thanks to Joel McHale and Robin Williams, the only two actors here who seem at all comfortable with the material they’re given. At least they appear to be comfortable, and that’s good enough for me. Williams plays the hilariously named Mitch Mitchler, a gruff, nasty recovering alcoholic who of course has a strained relationship with his son Boyd, played by McHale. Mitch never allowed Boyd the magic of believing in Santa Claus, so Boyd does everything he can to preserve the Santa Claus reality for his own children for as long as possible.

In typical cynical holiday movie fashion, Boyd is forced to spend Christmas with Mitch and his extended family in Wisconsin, and then forced to take a road trip back to his home on Christmas Eve night because he has forgotten his son’s presents. And of course the screenplay finds a way for Mitch to go with him. I’m willing to allow a movie its premise no matter how ridiculous the circumstances may be in order to set it up, as long as it follows through on it. A film that involves these two characters, played by these two actors on a super quick all-night road trip together could easily provide some light amusement for an hour and a half. But every time the film starts to develop any kind of dramatic momentum we cut back to Mitch’s Wisconsin home where the rest of the characters engage in meaningless, unfunny conversations about meaningless, unfunny nonsense.

Yes, I’ve gotten this far without mentioning any of the other characters because they’re so slight and so underdeveloped that even when they’re on the screen, they barely register. Lauren Graham is a longtime favorite of mine (and has recently done some of the best work of her career on Parenthood, a show which is sadly ending very soon), but she just looks confused here. And who can blame her? There’s nothing to play with. The interesting characters are on the road, separate from the rest of the action. She’s just sitting around at home with Candice Bergen who does practically nothing, Tim Heidecker and Wendi McClendon-Covey who may as well be cardboard cutouts, and a group of weird little kids doing weird little activities that have nothing to do with the story, or even Christmas in general. Did they just dig out shelved scenarios from director Tristram Shapeero’s work on Community, that never made it onto that show? Did they need to fill extra time because Robin Williams was only available for a few days? Who knows what went on behind the scenes here. All it looks like is that this 82 minute long movie is filled with way too many characters, when just sticking with Williams and McHale through the duration would have likely been far more interesting.

McHale basically plays the same character we’ve seen from him on television, delivering every line with his surprisingly charming pompous authoritative sarcasm. He’s still not quite an A-list star yet, so it’s probably best for him to stick with this persona for now. He does it very well. Hopefully we’ll see something different from him one day, but no reason for him to try anything risky for a film like this. I was more than happy to see someone take the material and exercise it for all it’s worth, which isn’t much. And of course the same goes for Williams. It doesn’t matter how mediocre a script may have been, Williams always gave it everything he had. When the film pauses long enough to allow these two to develop some type of rapport, real magic happens. And it’s a shame to imagine what may have been. Instead, like many episodes of Community, we’re constantly cutting back to the other characters, none of whom are remotely interesting. I know the movie is only 82 minutes, but it still blows my mind how little manages to be accomplished in that time. Community does more in each and every one of its 22 minute episodes than this supposed feature-length film.

But what a joy it is to see Robin Williams on the screen again. The man elevated the material in everything he did, and almost makes this worth a look. In fact, it will probably be on Netflix Instant soon enough, so just use that handy fast-forward scroller to skip to any of the scenes with him in it and you’ll get a good 40 or so minutes of entertainment and maybe even a hint of a reminder of why he was loved by so many. Until then, just rewatch one of his better films and maybe the Christmas episodes of Community.

Grade: D+

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