By Benji Tunnell
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Christmas movies have become a genre unto themselves, with such classics as "It's a Wonderful Life," "Elf," "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" and, of course, "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang." These heartwarming and life-affirming movies remind us of what makes this time of year so special: Attempted suicide, abandoned orphans, kidnapping and finger severing, respectively.
Over the past three decades, one film has risen above all the rest and become a holiday tradition in many homes. It's steeped in nostalgia, a yearning for simpler times and a sexy leg lamp.
"A Christmas Story" is one of the most oft-cited and quoted of the holiday's films, one that is centered on little Ralphie and his desire for a Red Ryder BB gun. The heart of the film is the story, based on the writings of Jean Shepherd, whose warm voice also narrates the quest.
There have been other works based on Shepherd's writings, but none as successful or as beloved. "A Christmas Story" has been set as the paragon of the untouchable, unassailable classics.
It would be borderline criminal to try to do a sequel to the film.
Which brings us to "A Christmas Story 2."
If Jean Shepherd's writings were the heart of the original, then I suppose this film is what you would get if you ripped that heart out with your bare hands, stomped it into the ground and set fire to it, while Daniel Stern laughs over-dramatically in the background.
Part 2 picks up a few years after the first movie. Ralphie, now Ralph, is 15 years old, hormone-driven and not nearly as cute and likable as his younger, Peter Billingsley-played self. After an accident at a car dealership, Ralph, along with friends Schwartz and Flick, must go to work to pay for the damage, finding jobs at Gimbels Department Store, where each has a series of mishaps and misfortunes based solely on their incompetence and stupidity.
In the meantime, the old man (Stern) carries on his war with the furnace, Randy fails to assume the cute role once held by Ralphie and mom continues to live in exasperated frustration.
There are so many things wrong with this film that it is hard to know where to begin. I'd like to think that if Shepherd was still alive he would have fought the making of this tooth and nail, probably going as far as to torch sets and kidnap actors, and most likely writing a witty and heartwarming anecdote about it all that would later be adapted into a film starring much more talented actors.
Stern has inexplicably made a career out of family fare, from playing the voice of the grown up Kevin in "The Wonder Years" to the tormentor of Kevin in the first two "Home Alone" films, to other projects that didn't even involve a Kevin.
Here he plays the old man as a real life version of Yosemite Sam. He blusters, fumes and faux swears in a way that is supposed to be comical but only comes off as grating and annoying. Not only that, the old man is such a skinflint that not only won't he pay for a new furnace, but he won't even spring for a Christmas turkey, forcing Randy to go ice fishing with sub-freezing weather with no form of shelter or protection against the elements.
Stern's old man is so wholly unlikeable that I actively rooted for the ice to break and swallow him up, effectively ending this painful sequel and certainly leaving the rest of the family better off.
The script, by Nat Mauldin ("Dr. Doolittle," "The In-Laws"), is utterly devoid of all things that would allow this film to be even passably good. Rather than humor, he borrows and updates scenes from the original film, handling them in a much less-effective way.
The old man continues to fight with the furnace, Ralph drops the "fudge" bomb again and Flick continues to struggle with putting his tongue in the wrong place. All are handled so clumsily that even if any humor was left in the scenarios, it is effectively killed in execution.
In addition, there is no character development given to any involved, with director Brian Levant and Mauldin coasting on the work done in the previous film, instead opting to make caricatures out of each character, almost all of whom come off as buffoonish and dumb.
What made the original movie so special was the way that it captured a more innocent time -- one in which the desire for a BB gun outweighed the problems of the rest of the world. Instead of working to recapture that magic, the makers of the sequel opted for a bastardization of the first film, trying to live off its nostalgia.
If there is any consolation to be taken from this, it is that the movie went straight to home video, thus limiting its audience. It is also the last movie headed straight to DVD and Blu-ray that Warner Brothers will produce. I guess it's good to go out on top.