Ah, the 80’s!! Back when life was good and all a kid wanted for Christmas was a Red Ryder BB gun. . . sorry, I mean, a Nintendo Entertainment System, the absolute newest and hottest gift in the stores! What would a kid do to get his most prized possession for Christmas? Let’s find out!
In a blatant and delicious rip-off of A Christmas Story combined with the outrageous zaniness of South Park’s Black Friday Trilogy and some Princess Bride thrown in for good measure, Neil Patrick Harris is Jake Doyle, a proud papa who regales to his young daughter, Annie (Sophia Reid-Gantzert), the circumstances of how he, as a young boy, tried to get his hands on a Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas back in the 80’s. As Jake narrates, we harken back to 1988 Belleville, Illinois, and 11-year-old Jake (Winslow Fegley) who, along with his classmates & friends at school, are all insanely jealous of super-rich & snobbish Timmy Keane (Chandler Dean), the only kid in town with a Nintendo. Naturally, everyone wants one, especially Jake who drops hints to his always busy mom, Kathy (June Diane Raphael), and cantankerous dad, John (Steve Zahn) who’s in a perpetual state of renovating their house.
Jake even makes a deal with his bratty little sister, Lizzy (Bellaluna Resnick) to get her a Cabbage Patch Doll, but after a trip to the mall (one of the funniest scenes in the movie), Jake’s dreams are dashed. Ah! There’s a contest in town with the local Rangers (i.e. Boy Scouts) for selling Christmas wreaths. . . and first place is a Nintendo! Everyone goes nuts trying to out-sell each other, even the school bully, over-sized Josh Jagorski (Cyrus Arnold). But after a snafu, Jake and his pals concoct a desperate plan to get the gaming system via an Oceans 11 scheme involving baseball cards, Spaghetti-O’s, a trip to the Art Museum, and the outrageous & compulsive lying skills of Jeff Farmer (Max Malas). Does it work? Will Jake finally get his prized Nintendo by Christmas? Will dad pull a hat trick and give Jake what he wants? And can anyone in this family ever get to eat a cookie baked by mom?
Although this is an obvious loving homage to A Christmas Story in many ways, make no mistake, writer Kevin Jakubowski pulls a fast one and fills this full of hilarious scenes, gags, fantasy moments (I love the talking Nintendo display!), and ridiculous, absurd antics of the kids that borders on Nickelodeon silliness. Even though Jakubowski has only written one screenplay, the forgettable Assassination of a High School President, and a bunch of TV series you never heard of, this is my new Holiday favorite. It’s fresh, funny, and has a wild goofiness that is close to slapstick. What’s amazing is the director, Michael Dowse, whose truly awful Stuber in 2019 was painful to watch, while this was so very good and filled with comedic gold. Go figure.
NPH (Neil Patrick Harris) is simply wonderful as the father/narrator, but give it up for Fegley who makes this movie shine with his occasional fourth-wall breaking and outgoing charm. Steve Zahn is a hoot as the exasperated (and often cynical) dad who just wants a cookie, and little Resnick is quite engaging. The real fun are the rogues’ gallery that make up Jake’s friends, most notably: the Hodges twins (Brielle & Braelyn Rankins), school nerd Conor Stump (Jacon Laval), and Malas who can’t stop lying. Also great is David Cross in a short cameo as a black market toy seller. I haven’t laughed out loud this much in a while at a Christmas movie, so I’m glad this one came out! I really needed this!!
**Now streaming on HBOMax
A Christmas Story (1983)
What can be said about this perennial Holiday movie? Besides being shown on TBS every year for 24hrs straight, it has launched a successful Broadway musical, merchandising gifts galore, catch-phrases, and the actual location house being a huge tourist attraction! Yeah, it’s MORE than popular!
Originally written as an anecdote by Jean Shepherd in his book, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, he adapted it into a screenplay along with writer/director Bob Clark (Porky’s, Black Christmas) and one & done Leigh Brown (her only script). A slice of pure Americana and based on Shepherd’s own life, it deals with young Ralphie Parker (an extraordinary Peter Billingsly) and his unyielding quest for the penultimate Christmas gift: “a Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time”! It’s all he wants, dreams, and fantasizes about. But his mother (Melinda Dillion) is dead set against it (“you’ll shoot your eyes out!”), as is his favorite teacher, Mrs. Shields (Tedde Moore).
Meanwhile, Ralphie is plagued by school bullies, Scut Farkus (Zack Ward) and his “crummy little toadie”, Grover Dill (Yano Anaya), not to mention his BFF, Flick (Scott Schwartz) stuck his tongue to a light pole and his little brother, Randy (Ian Petrella) is being a pain. But maybe a trip to Higbee’s Department Store and a visit with Santa Claus with do the trick? Uh, think again, Ralphie! While Ralphie’s father (the fantastic Darrin McGavin) does battle with the house furnace, winning a stunning leg lamp seems to lift his spirits, much to the embarrassment of his wife. There is SO much joy, happiness, hilarity, and utter nonsense (the next-door neighbor’s dogs!) it’s no wonder this movie has endured in the hearts & minds of everyone for decades!
Tasty Tidbits: Inside Higbee’s where Ralphie is waiting to see Santa, all the dialogue between Ralphie and the Wicked Witch was ad-libbed. The actress playing Mrs. Shields was very pregnant when shooting. Flick’s tongue didn’t really stick on a metal pole, they used a hidden suction tube. Originally Ralphie’s dad was going to be Jack Nicholson. The bearded man in line at Higbee’s who tells Ralphie to get to the end of the end? That’s author/narrator Jean Shepherd! When Randy goes down the slide at Higbee’s, he was terrified and really cried. When the head of the “Christmas duck” is chopped off in the Chinese restaurant, only McGavin was told about it; the shocked reactions of the others were real!
The real Christmas Story house where they filmed (3159 W. 11th St, in Cleveland, OH) was bought by superfan Brian M. Jones from Ebay for $150K and renovated it to the exact movie specifications inside & out, including furniture and props from the film. It’s now a year-long tourist attraction with an adjacent gift shop that sells everything from leg lamps to “pink nightmare” bunny pajamas to DVD’s of the movie. Check out their website! BTW: Brian made all his money back two days after he first opened the house to the public!