A man sits in a bar, alone at Christmastime. He’s had too much to drink; he’s telling you things about himself you’d rather not hear. He has family problems. He has stolen money from his boss. He’s one arrest away from going to jail, and most importantly, he hates the holidays and can’t stand seeing people enjoying themselves at Christmas.
A lot of people might end the conversation there, wish the poor guy a happy holiday and be off. But you stick around. This guy seems interesting, and besides, you’re not really talking to him. You’re just watching another Christmas movie, and you’re only at the first scene.
An increasing number of holiday movies seem to start out this way. It’s Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol all over again.
But that doesn’t stop filmmakers from returning to this redemption story every December, hoping viewers won’t notice the old tale through the new veil of more sordid circumstances in which they cast their characters.
Sure, it’s an action movie or a dark comedy we’re being sold on, but what are we really getting?
Take Bad Santa (2003), for instance. Billy Bob Thornton plays Willy: a smoking, swearing, shopping-mall Santa Claus with a drinking problem. Did I mention he litters in parking lots? As far as grinches go, Willy is by far the worst. He hates children and only puts up with hearing their Christmas wishes each December so he and his “elf” buddy Marcus can steal from the department stores where they work.
Until, that is, he meets a boy who pulls on Willy’s fake beard, asks for a pink elephant and follows him around after work. Though initially annoyed, Willy soon discovers that he and “the kid” (who is never named) have a lot in common, from growing up without parents to getting beaten up by bullies. Seeing a lot of himself in the kid, Willy begins to find reasons to change — but not before one last department store heist rife with booze, bribes and bad behaviour.
Similarly, Eight Crazy Nights (2002) starts in a bar in Dukesberry, a fictional small town celebrating the holidays. Though the film is technically a Hanukkah movie, the narrator is quick to make clear that its hero, Davey Stone, hates holidays of any kind, from Christmas to Kwanzaa. It hurts Davey to see families enjoying themselves — he lost his in a car accident 20 years ago and has been getting into trouble with the law ever since. After belching in his server’s face, he leaves the bar without paying, tries to start his car while drunk and gets arrested for the umpteenth time, almost landing in jail.
The second chance he gets from the judge seems just as bad to him: coaching a boys’ basketball team with the town misfit, Whitey Duvall. But leave it to the singing, dancing 70-year-old with a heart of gold (and a bit of a chest-hair problem) to help Davey clean up his act.
Not one to break with tradition, Charlie Arglist, the lead character in The Ice Harvest (2005), begins his Christmas Eve at a Kansas strip club. A lawyer for the mob, Charlie has just embezzled $2 million from his boss, and he and his partner in crime plan to run away with the money on Christmas morning. All he has to do is act innocent for 12 hours.
The problem is he feels so good about becoming rich that he starts to do people favours throughout the night, and the townsfolk get suspicious. One by one, his friends turn on him, and Charlie realizes that his new-found riches may bring him more problems than fortune.
“Man, Charlie, you’re the nicest person I know,” says a bartender, who has just siphoned gas from Charlie’s car.
“I’m really sorry to hear that,” he responds.
Ebenezer’s curmudgeonly ways may pale in comparison to the sins of these updated Scrooges, but their role in modern Christmas movies remains the same. Maybe a part of us, as viewers, likes to know that people as depraved as Willy, Davey or Charlie still have it in them to change. Maybe we’ve just grown weary of seeing Scrooge parade the streets of London in his nightie every Christmas Eve.
Or maybe not. Jim Carrey takes up that role this month.
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