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The War On Christmas Movies

What does the awfulness of most Yule-themed movies tell us about the reality of our so-called favorite holiday?

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Burns calls on one of the oldest stories in the Christmas playbook: the yarn about a riven family trying to patch itself together for one holiday season. He plays Gerry, the oldest son and chief facilitator of the Fitzgerald household, who tries to wrangle his large tribe of warring adult siblings – there are too damn many sisters; I won’t even try — and convince his embittered mom (Anita Gillette) to let his exiled but terminally ill father (Ed Lauter) back into the family house for one last Christmas dinner. Those two are terrific and pretty much steal the show, but Burns remains an agreeable presence throughout, and the emotions mostly ring true, even if the comic elements feel overly broad and individual episodes are hit-and-miss. Britton — who’s, of course, far more famous than she was in 1995 (and more so than anyone else in the cast) — gets what amounts to an extended cameo as the nurse who breaks through Gerry’s wall of manly loneliness. Her character turns out to be a Bostonian and a Red Sox fan, and even that won’t scare Gerry away.

If “The Fitzgerald Family Christmas” might be the one movie of 2012 that Bill O’Reilly and I both like, he might not appreciate me saying that it feels like a stripped-down American remake of French director Arnaud Desplechin’s marvelous ensemble drama from 2008, “A Christmas Tale,” with Catherine Deneuve as the cancer-stricken matriarch of a feuding clan. (Nor is that the only recent art-house treatment of Christmas themes. Martin McDonagh’s “In Bruges” might be the most overtly Christian Christmas movie in years, but not in a way Bill O’Reilly would recognize or approve of.) But one fair-to-middling Christmas movie that does not involve dynamiting the neighbors’ lawn or Eddie Murphy dressing as a 300-pound woman does not solve the Yuletide cinema problem, which I think is real.

I hesitate to build an argument around some sentiment like “Christmas used to be more innocent,” because that’s an inherently stupid thing to say. There’s a germ of truth to that, though: As the holiday season has swollen in size, both in kitschy symbolism and in economic importance — an element satirized more than 60 years ago in “Miracle on 34th Street” — it makes those of us old enough to know the dark truth about St. Nicholas increasingly anxious and cynical about the whole business. Holiday entertainments are supposed to embody homilies about the “real meaning” of Christmas, but those of us out here in Consumerland have good reason to roll our eyes at that one. If Christmas, in the American meaning of the holiday, has long been an ideological construct used to paper over economic necessity, the paper has worn pretty thin.

Is there a war on Christmas that makes the holiday seem increasingly hollow and the movies that claim to celebrate it seem tawdry and desperate? Sure there is, Bill, but it’s not being waged by lesbians and atheists. It’s being waged by an economy that has driven the real incomes of ordinary Americans downward year after year for four decades while demanding ever more exorbitant displays of holiday largess. We work harder for less money and are expected to spend more and more on electronic gizmos that fill up our diminishing leisure hours. It’s pretty tough to sit by the fire in a cardigan thinking about the spiritual meaning of Christmas amid all that, and the problem with watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” one more time – in all its naked, painful American religiosity — is that it reminds us that, in theory, it doesn’t have to be this way.