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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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So is there really a “war on Christmas” being waged by pinko, lefty, pro-choice, sexually bewildered heathens, as Bill O’Reilly proclaims around this time every year? Well, I don’t know about that, but there’s definitely a war on Christmas movies in that nobody seems capable of making good ones and the list of unwatchably crappy ones grows longer every year. Admittedly, it’s hard for any movie of any kind to be more painful than Tim Allen’s “Santa Clause” series. (There are three of them. Three!) But then, you probably haven’t seen either the 1977 remake of “It’s a Wonderful Life” starring Marlo Thomas or whatever the “Christmas Carol” knockoff from the ’90s was called in which Vanessa Williams played Ebony Scrooge.

While the Internet is loaded with lists of supposedly great Christmas-themed movies, almost all of them include the same top few entries: Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” of course – mercilessly pilloried by Gary Kamiya in an all-time classic Salon essay – along with “Miracle on 34th Street,” the Bing Crosby “White Christmas” (which isn’t actually good), the 1951 “Scrooge,” “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (which is a TV special, not a movie) and the Rankin-Bass stop-motion “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (ditto). “Home Alone” and “Elf” are pretty much the only mainstream Christmas flicks made in the past 30 years that anybody wants to watch again, and while the latter is delightful, I find the former almost intolerable (and its Christmas-ness arguably irrelevant).

Sure, some people will stretch the point and stick in any movie that features someone in a Santa suit or a scene with a Christmas tree. All of a sudden “Batman Returns,” “Brazil,” the first two “Die Hard” movies and “Eyes Wide Shut” become Christmas movies, along with lots of other not-so-appropriate-for-the-family fare. Now, some of those, especially the Tim Burton and Stanley Kubrick entries, may belong on a list of films that twist the holiday-movie conventions toward dark purposes, but we aren’t going there today. None of those has exactly the bittersweet mix of sentimentality, sadness and redemption captured in a classic Christmas tale, a combination that seems especially difficult to manage in contemporary cinema, at least without teeth-grinding zaniness, madcap violence or the ickiest forms of emotional terrorism. Maybe O’Reilly has a point!

Here’s the good news about Edward Burns’ new movie “The Fitzgerald Family Christmas,” which goes at this problem head-on: It’s entirely sincere and genuinely not terrible. Burns knows the milieu of his suburbanized New York Irish-American characters at a bone-deep level (enough to induce powerful flashbacks in someone of my background), and the tone of regretful, tragicomic, low-key melodrama he strikes is just right. You may know Burns best from his recurring roles on “Entourage” and “Will & Grace” or his modest parts in Hollywood movies, but he’s been cranking out his own low-budget indies as a writer-director for years without ever quite connecting the way he did with his 1995 debut, “The Brothers McMullen.”

Apparently, it was Tyler Perry who encouraged Burns to get back to his Irish-American, outer-borough roots, which may sound odd at first but makes more and more sense the longer you think about it. (Burns played Perry’s sidekick in this fall’s non-hit “Alex Cross,” which was terrible and which I sort of liked.) So it is that “The Fitzgerald Family Christmas” features two of Burns’ most memorable co-stars from “Brothers McMullen,” Connie Britton and Michael McGlone, and takes place in roughly the same lower-middle-class zones of Long Island, rich with many generations of New York cops and firefighters. (Burns, a native of Woodside, Queens, is a cop’s kid himself.) And so it is, I guess, that it feels pretty much like a Tyler Perry movie for white people, with all the lurching from one subplot to the next, awkward oversharing and emotional directness that implies.