Robin Williams remained a dynamic performer all the way up to his untimely demise earlier this year, but he all too rarely worked on projects that were up to his level of comic brilliance.
And if you were hoping that “A Merry Friggin’ Christmas” bucked that trend, get ready for a movie that’s the equivalent of the gift that goes straight to the exchange counter on December 26.
The dysfunctional-family comedy ranks among my very favorite flavor of Christmas movies — films like “The Ref,” “Bad Santa,” and French import “La Bûche” all do a great job of cutting through Yuletide sweetness — but “Friggin'” disappoints on every level. In attempting to work through its family issues, it arrives at catharses that are contrived and unearned, and in attempting to find humor in this pungent situation, it fails to deliver laughs.
(There’s a desperation to be transgressive and outrageous, but the movie is as softened-down as its titular profanity. When asparagus is mentioned in the first act, there’s a predictable reference to urine in the third. Bold!)
Every so often, a movie comes along that begs the question, “With a cast this good, how bad could it be?” The answer is “This bad.” Even with a powerhouse ensemble that includes Williams, Joel McHale, Candice Bergen, Oliver Platt, Lauren Graham, Wendi McClendon-Covey, Clark Duke, and Tim Heidecker, there are almost no “Friggin'” laughs to be found.
Having grown up with grouchy, drunken Mitch (Robin Williams), uptight hedge-fund manager Boyd (McHale) has devoted himself to being the opposite kind of father. Whereas Mitch spilled the beans about Santa to five-year-old Boyd, Boyd in turn goes out of his way to keep his seven-year-old Douglas (Pierce Gagnon, “Looper”) believing in St. Nick.
Boyd never goes home for the holidays, but when his PTSD-addled brother Nelson (Duke) asks him to stand as godfather for a christening on December 24, Boyd, wife Luann (Graham), son Douglas and daughter Vera (Bebe Wood, “The New Normal”) troop from Chicago to Wisconsin to spend Christmas with Mitch and Donna (Candice Bergen) and the rest of the family.
McClendon-Covey and Heidecker get saddled with the role of Boyd’s redneck sister and her husband, and their moments all play like diluted-eggnog versions of Randy Quaid and Miriam Flynn in the “Vacation” movies, while Williams and McHale yell at each other in a valiant (but fruitless) attempt to find comedy in Michael Brown’s witless script.
The big plot point involves Boyd and Mitch driving back to Chicago to retrieve Douglas’ Christmas presents, which involves the periodic appearance of a drunken corner Santa (Platt), and eventually lessons are learned and holiday miracles blah blah blah. Christmas movies are allowed a lot of leeway when it comes to sentimentality and redemption, but they have to earn them; these characters are so flatly written, and the movie itself is so ploddingly directed by TV vet Tristram Shapeero, that it’s impossible to give the proceedings any level of indulgence.
And as a devoted viewer of Christmas movies, can I please ask that filmmakers stop setting their movies in cold places that are having “the warmest December on record?” If you shoot your holiday film in July, or you’re making it in California or (in the case of “Friggin'”) Georgia, then just own up to it, rather than trying to make us believe that it’s balmy in Wisconsin in December.
You might think focusing on the climate is nit-picking, but “Merry Friggin’ Christmas” is like a boring, awkward conversation at a holiday party — eventually, out of desperation, you turn to the weather as a topic.