Like all untimely movie star deaths, you’re not really gone until the last movie you finished before your death is released. The tragic passing of Robin Williams this past summer was marked by this website and others by recognizing several of the actor’s greatest comedy hits. Sadly, A Merry Friggin’ Christmas will not join their ranks.
The set-up is simple. Boyd Mitchler (Joel McHale) traces every bad thing wrong with his life back to the horrible parenting of his drunken dad Mitch (Robin Williams). Having grown up to become a successful Chicago hedge fund manager, Boyd overcompensates with his own son, Doug (Pierce Gagnon), to make sure he gets every bit the magical Christmas that Mitch denied Boyd through bourbon-fuelled candour. Obviously Boyd’s put a lot of time and distance between him and his father, but when his younger brother, Nelson (Clark Duke), calls him up to invite Boyd and family to his son’s Christmas Eve baptism, fate plays its hand and it turns into Christmas with drunk ‘n’ rude Grandpa Mitch and the long-suffering Grandma Donna (Candice Bergen). It’s not perfect, but it’s family.
By the way, was it mentioned that Nelson’s child is actually his ex-girlfriend’s who got knocked up by some Mexican and dumped the kid on Nelson? And did you know that Boyd also has a sister (Wendi McLendon-Covey), who’s married to a doofus (Tim Heidecker) on parole for exposing himself to a bus full of nuns on a double-dare? They also have two kids, Rance (Ryan Lee), an accomplished competitive eater, and Pam (Amara Miller), who aspires to be a Kardashian. Welcome to One Man’s Family… A mess of Midwestern stereotypes about working class hicks who drink too much beer and watch too much TV.
And then there’s Boyd’s family, which doesn’t eat red meat, bans the kids from playing video games, and whose daughter Vera (Bebe Wood) comes precariously close to being the flesh and blood Lisa Simpson. Boyd lives in the city, you see, so he knows all about caller ID and houses made from bricks. It would have been nice if the script by first-time screenwriter Michael Brown had tried to lampshade the blue state/red neck dynamic by not making Boyd completely intolerant, and by not making the rest of the Mitchlers a 1980s sitcom, but this is a Christmas movie, so I suppose the tropes must be acknowledged.
The plot hinges on Boyd racing from his parents’ home in Wisconsin to his place in Chicago and back again in an eight hour round trip after having forgotten to bring Doug’s presents. Boyd is anxious for the boy to hold on to his Tiny Tim-like naivety and hopefulness for as long as possible, maintaining the lie that his father so patently blew up during Boyd’s youth: that Santa Claus is real. Mitch comes along for the ride, which leads to father-son bonding, which leads to understanding as both men make peace with one and other. As if they wouldn’t.
Hopefully, there’s a cheque in the mail to the estate of John Hughes, the writer of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, because that’s where the inspiration for Friggin’ clearly began. Director Tristram Shapeero should know good comedy as he’s directed enough of it on TV, including Children’s Hospital, New Girl and McHale’s own Community. He does know timing, and he does know how to construct a good gag and lay the ground work to pay things off later, but it’s the same ground that was laid all the way back 25 years ago by the Griswolds. Someone even gets set on fire, but the movie didn’t even make it 12 minutes before lighting the match.
Adding insult to injury is that this is a solid cast of comedic performers trying to transcend the material they’re asked to act out. McHale tones down the smarm, yet is just as effectively dry playing Boyd. However, I swear there was one point in the film where McHale had a look on his face that said either he’s connecting emotionally with Williams, or he can’t believe he made this far through the film. The late, great Williams is effective, too. He’s somewhat toned down as opposed to his usual shtick, but one definitely gets a sense that he’s a caring lunatic, and he’s probably the only one that gets anything resembling an emotional arc.
The marginal comedic talent on display from the two leads doesn’t improve the terrible predictability of the movie though. Beat by beat, this plays out exactly how you would expect, because there are really only two types of Christmas movies: the holiday is either threatened by a long-suffering, unaddressed family dysfunction, or by an external threat caused and/or solved by the supernatural. The only really surprising part of the film is when a touching family moment potentially turns into vehicular manslaughter of a hobo in a Santa Claus suit. For a moment there it looked like the film was turning into Silent Night Deadly Night, but A Merry Friggin’ Christmas is as about as unlikely to go that dark in its final third as it is to become insightful into modern family dynamics.
The problem with A Merry Friggin’ Christmas, like a lot of Christmas movies, is that it thinks its reminding you of the true meaning of the holidays while being only concerned with the things people claim to hate about the season. A man let down by his father should teach his son that the true meaning of Christmas is to not take your family for granted, and that one should be accepting and tolerant of people’s faults, not that perfection is a quest that one undertakes with the reckless abandon of a cartoon supervillain looking for some MacGuffin or other. He should also teach is son that even if Santa isn’t real, his values of charity, sharing and joy are, and those things matter more than any present regardless of how special or one of a kind it is.
Incidentally, “special” and “one of a kind” are words that don’t apply to this movie, but like Citizen Kane it does have a sled in the end, so it’s got that going for it, which is nice. In terms of exploiting cheap Christmas clichés though, A Merry Friggin’ Christmas definitely makes the naughty list.