A suburban Chicago couple tries to sit out on their annual yuletide festivities, only to find themselves at the center of a series of rapidly snowballing slapstick antics. No, it's not another "Christmas Vacation" with the Griswolds, but rather "Christmas With the Kranks," an agreeable, if snowflake-thin stocking stuffer faithfully adapted from John Grisham's 2001 bestseller "Skipping Christmas."

A suburban Chicago couple tries to sit out on their annual yuletide festivities, only to find themselves at the center of a series of rapidly snowballing slapstick antics. No, it’s not another “Christmas Vacation” with the Griswolds, but rather “Christmas With the Kranks,” an agreeable, if snowflake-thin stocking stuffer faithfully adapted from John Grisham’s 2001 bestseller “Skipping Christmas.” Toplining Tim Allen in another well-tailored comic role, pic should play nicely through the holiday season but its focus on a kind of middle-age-crazy to the near-exclusion of kid-centric antics may keep it out of the B.O. stratosphere achieved by Allen’s previous seasonal outings.

Set between Thanksgiving and Christmas, pic begins with a tearful airport farewell, as Luther (Allen) and Nora (Jamie Lee Curtis) Krank see their twentysomething daughter, Blair (Julie Gonzalo), take off for a year as a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru. Propelled by a sense of empty-nest syndrome, and by tax-accountant Luther’s shocking realization that the previous year’s Christmas cost the Kranks some $6000 in nondeductible expenses, Luther proposes that he and Nora simply don’t celebrate Christmas that year and go on a 10-day Caribbean cruise instead.

But no sooner have the Kranks resolved to “skip” Christmas than they start to find out just how difficult that might be. An interoffice memo refers to Luther as Scrooge. When Nora mentions the cruise to friends over lunch in a posh restaurant, she momentarily brings all activity in the place to a stunned halt. Worse is the pressure from their street’s self-elected taskmaster, Vic Frohmeyer (a perfectly anal-retentive Dan Aykroyd).

For years, at Frohmeyer’s urging, all of the street’s residents have placed a life-sized Frosty the Snowman atop their homes, and when the Kranks prove to be this year’s lone holdout, they find themselves besieged with petitions to “Free Frosty!”

The real crimp in the Kranks’ plan, however, comes just before Christmas Eve, when Blair surprises them with a phone call from the Miami airport. Turns out she’s coming home for the holiday after all and, what’s more, she’s bringing her new Peruvian fiancé, who has never experienced a true American Christmas, with her. Hence, at a moment’s notice, the Kranks must drop everything and hurry to suddenly un-skip Christmas.

The expected mania ensues and, at its best, “Christmas With the Kranks” — which was adapted for the screen by Chris Columbus — makes some smart observations about the way a holiday rooted in generosity and kindness has been twisted into a consumerist nightmare of traffic snarls, checkout lines of biblical proportions and neighborly one-upsmanship. When Luther finally does cave and try to put up Frosty, he nearly kills himself in the process.

Under the confident hand of Revolution Studios topper and occasional helmer Joe Roth, the jokes zip along. And if pic is ultimately something of a softball satire, its climactic evocation of the “true meaning” of the holidays is surprisingly touching.

But the film derives its energy from its performers, particularly Allen, who is ever more fun to watch the more misery befalls him, and Curtis, who has much less to do here than she did in last year’s “Freaky Friday,” but is nonetheless good doing it. Vet character actor Austin Pendleton has an endearing bit as a mysterious party guest. But the late Alan King, to whom pic is dedicated and who was earlier reported to have filmed a small role as Allen’s boss, seems to have ended up on the cutting room floor.

After weather concerns vetoed a location shoot, pic’s Chicago suburbia was instead lensed on an elaborate outdoor set created by production designer Gareth Stover in the parking lot of a former Boeing factory in Downey, Calif. The sell is a convincing one (with the exception of some scenes set in the surrounding town, which possess a noticeable backlot quality) aided by d.p. Don Burgess’ crisp, high-contrast widescreen compositions. Soundtrack is the typical conflagration of new and revamped holiday standards tied together by composer John Debney’s bouncy, festive score.

Christmas With the Kranks

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Revolution Studios presentation of a 1492 Films production. Produced by Chris Columbus, Mark Radcliffe, Michael Barnathan. Executive producers, Charles Newirth, Bruce A. Block. Co-producer, Allegra Clegg. Directed by Joe Roth. Screenplay, Chris Columbus, based on the novel "Skipping Christmas" by John Grisham.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Don Burgess; editor, Nick Moore; music, John Debney; music supervisor, Little Steven; production designer, Gareth Stover; supervising art director, Christopher Burian-Mohr; set designers, Gae Buckley, Bruce Robert Hill, Patricia Klawonn, Barbara Mesney, Theodore Sharps; set decorator, Karen O'Hara; costume designer, Susie DeSanto; sound (DTS/SDDS/Dolby Digital), Willie Burton; supervising sound editor, Darren King; visual effects supervisor, Sheena Duggal; visual effects, Sony Pictures Imageworks; associate producer/assistant director, Alan B. Curtiss; casting, Margery Simkin. Reviewed at Avco Theater, Los Angeles, Nov. 20, 2004. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 98 MIN.

With

Luther Krank - Tim Allen Nora Krank - Jamie Lee Curtis Vic Frohmeyer - Dan Aykroyd Spike Frohmeyer - Erik Per Sullivan Officer Salino - Cheech Marin Officer Treen - Jake Busey Walt Scheel - M. Emmet Walsh Bev Scheel - Elizabeth Franz Mr. Scanlon - Kevin Chamberlain Enrique DeCardenal - Rene Lavan Umbrella Santa/ Marty - Austin Pendleton Candi - Caroline Rhea Aubie - Patrick Breen Merry - Felicity Huffman Daisy - Arden Myrin Blair Krank - Julie Gonzalo

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