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A Merry Dysfunctional Christmas


The dysfunctional family Christmas movie is a genre that defies all logic and reason. The notion of paying money to watch families fight, scream and unload all of their psychological and sexual baggage after arriving at grandma's house must fulfill a deep need in the audiences that attend these films because they are fast becoming a regular Hollywood Holiday tradition.


The plots and themes of the films within this genre are so similar, I find it difficult to keep them separated in my mind. As Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give It Up" plays on my radio while authoring this article, I'm having a hard time keeping last year's This Christmas (which recently released to DVD in November 2008) apart from what I observed a few weeks ago in Four Christmases. An extended version of Gaye's song plays during the closing credits of This Christmas, with the obvious intent of providing an obligatory happy ending along with extending the film's time to barely feature length.


But prior to the party scene that closes the movie, we have been privy to a non-stop assortment of arguments between siblings and their mother, which have revealed everything from clandestine criminal activity to intimate sexual details that we really didn't need to know.


Four Christmases, on the other hand, would be a gift to all mankind if it were shorter.  A couple, who is convinced marriage will kill their three year relationship, has spent the last three years lying to family members about what they are doing at Christmas. But this year, bad weather grounds them at the airport, and they must admit they aren't really saving starving children in the Third World, but instead have been heading to the beach each year. Now they must pay their "punishment" and visit their four respective parents separately because (of course) everyone is divorced. The outcome is an extra helping of sexual innuendo, crass humor and a very offensive nativity reenactment.


The idea of running away without the family is nothing new. Christmas With the Kranks tried the same premise with, surprisingly, somewhat more warmhearted results, but not without the usual family confrontations.


One thing I must give credit to is these films show no favoritism to any race, class, religion or sexual orientation. Blacks, whites, gays, Christians, Jews, rich and poor all look like desperate pathetic fools.


When The Family Stone got together over Christmas dinner in 2005, the pudding began to steam when one son, who is gay and hearing impaired, began a heated debate with his brother's fiancée about influences of genetics and environment on sexual preferences. The aforementioned This Christmas has an African-American family mixing it up, with the irony that the only couple in the movie that don't sleep together is also the only pair who is married. Puerto Ricans are the focus in the most recently released film, Nothing Like the Holidays, which is -- relatively speaking -- a slightly better holiday experience. While all the typical arguing is present, at least it offers some logical and realistic reconciliation after the many family conflicts. And then there's the poor lonely sap played by Ben Affleck in the very forgettable Surviving Christmas from 2004 who had to pay $250,000 to hire a dysfunctional family he could spend the holidays with. He should have just gone to the theater...


Another variation on the theme is to get neighbors involved. Deck the Halls from 2006 has a new family move into the neighborhood, with a father who is determined to put enough lights on his house that it may be seen from space. Amidst the slapstick stupidity are the typical sexual comments that seem to invade all these scripts.


 2006's Unaccompanied Minors demonstrates why some couples never choose to have children after a snowstorm grounds a group of kids in an airport overnight. Adam Sandler's Eight Crazy Nights puts a young Jewish man with a chronic drunken temper in the midst of a plot with a man who wants to be a do-gooder in his community  -- the outcome is toilet humor and musical sexual innuendo (got to give them credit for trying something new...).


I'm not trying to be the cinematic Grinch by dragging you through all these bad holiday memories, and neither am I opposed to seeing movies that deal with serious family topics. But isn't there still a market for a Christmas or holiday themed movie that deals with serious issues and doesn't leave you feeling like you want to sneak off alone to the North Pole before the relatives arrive?


Some of our favorite family Christmas traditions do revolve around movies, and I find our annual viewing of It's A Wonderful Life and The Muppet Christmas Carol leave me feeling better about the reason for the season.  Others your family may enjoy are the classics Miracle on 34th Street (both the 1947 and 1994 versions are very good), the more "serious" retelling of A Christmas Carol, Holiday Inn, and White Christmas. There are a couple of newer standouts as well -- Queen Latifah starring in the thoughtful Last Holiday and the reverent presentation of The Nativity Story.


Looking at this week's box office numbers, my negative view of Four Christmases is certainly not shared by everyone, as this comedy is pushing 100 million just weeks after its release. However, I'm hopeful we may see a few more holiday films coming through the systems in the years to come that won't leave people (like me) who yearn for a positive year-end message out in the cold.


Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!


Rod Gustafson

Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews® - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.

Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org

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