In essence a title and release date in search of a movie, “Deck the Halls” is a lifeless, workmanlike comedy conceived to provide holiday shoppers an inoffensive respite from the mall. Matthew Broderick and Danny DeVito go through the motions as the squabbling leads in this drab exercise, which throws in sprinkles of Hallmark sappiness to pad its Scrooge-like portion of laughs beyond episodic sitcom length. A seemingly low-risk affair for Fox, pic should leave a tidy gift under the tree but will require goodwill toward messes to remain in theaters through the yuletide season.
“Around here, I’m the Christmas guy,” explains tightly wound optometrist Steve Finch (Broderick) when his new neighbor, Buddy Hall (DeVito), decides to transform his snow-covered New England house (actually Vancouver) into a spectacle of lights.
Buddy’s inspiration, however, makes about as much sense as everything else in the movie — namely, the information that some houses can be detected via satellite from space prompts him to keep adding wattage until the feat is achieved, almost on a whim.
This annoys Steve to no end, though it doesn’t seem to bother his wife (Kristin Davis), who quickly bonds with Buddy’s free-spirited missus (Kristin Chenoweth).
Steve’s regimented approach to Christmas also leaves little spontaneity for dealing with his kids, a surly teenager (“Arrested Development’s” Alia Shawkat) and depressed 10-year-old (Dylan Blue). All told, someone is surely going to learn a lesson about the meaning of Christmas — after, that is, a requisite assortment of pratfalls, bickering and winsome music meant to confuse the audience into thinking they’re having a good time.
As Buddy, the car salesman who finally finds a purpose, and Steve, the tight-ass who needs to lighten up, DeVito and Broderick might have the makings for an old-fashioned odd-couple comedy, but none of that is developed in a meaningful way. Indeed, their feuding is silly and doesn’t logically escalate as the movie lurches from one interlude to the next — none particularly big, splashy or even all that destructive, reflecting production values as modest as the script.
Nor is there any depth or pathos, beyond DeVito’s wounded expression, when Steve dubs Buddy a loser, which at least might help explain his sudden obsession with being seen from above. In fact, a cynic might conclude that the whole movie exists because a house made up to resemble a Vegas casino makes for a swell 30-second TV spot.
Director John Whitesell and one of his three writers here, Don Rhymer, collaborated on “Big Momma’s House 2,” and “Deck the Halls” represents a similar marriage of comedy and commerce. Fleeting appearances by “Lost’s” Jorge Garcia and “Saturday Night Live’s” Fred Armisen also suggest some cutting to mitigate the damage, or at least the number of times patrons will be tempted to contemplate whether it’s time for a new watch.
“This is just getting embarrassing,” Chenoweth’s character fusses at one point. It’s meant to lament the boys’ bad behavior, but she could just as easily be discussing the movie itself, which, even with its underlying themes of family and holiday spirit, warrants coal in the stockings all around.