The makers of “A Merry Friggin’ Christmas” sprung for the fancy wrapping but skimped on the gift inside. How else to explain the gathering of such a talented and likable cast in service of such undercooked, utterly laugh-free material? Of trivial interest for containing one of Robin Williams’ final screen performances (the late actor has three additional films awaiting release), this feature helming debut from prolific TV comedy director Tristram Shapeero is nevertheless “Friggin'” forgettable. Hitting theaters and VOD three weeks before Thanksgiving, the pic’s dysfunctional family antics are sure to be little but a hazy memory come Christmas.
Clocking in at a brisk 72 minutes (not including end credits) and overflowing with engaging thesps, pic should be a breeze to watch. But if the shockingly simplistic final product is remotely reflective of the original script, tyro scribe Michael Brown’s take on an adult son, Boyd Mitchler (Joel McHale), reconciling with his recovering alcoholic father, Mitch Mitchler (Williams), was doomed from the start.
After a flashback to the momentous Christmas Eve when Mitch destroyed his 5-year-old son’s belief in Santa Claus during a drunken fit, the story proper picks up with a grown-up Boyd — now a bougie hedge-fund manager — doing everything he can to protect the innocence of his own Santa-loving offspring, Douglas (Pierce Gagnon). Boyd’s perfect holiday plans hit a snag when his happy-go-lucky younger brother, Nelson (Clark Duke), calls to invite Boyd’s family to a Christmas Eve baptism for a newborn whom Nelson essentially inherited from his promiscuous ex-g.f. (Nelson isn’t the father, but he’s blissfully resigned to assuming responsibility).
For Boyd, that means a face-to-face encounter with his father at Christmastime, and as he explains to supportive wife Luann (Lauren Graham) in one of the relentlessly bland film’s more colorful lines: “I’d rather be sodomized by an angry clown than spend Christmas with him.” Hyperbole aside, Boyd packs up the family — also including precocious preteen daughter, Vera (Bebe Wood) — for a long haul from Chicago to northern Wisconsin. His mother, Donna (Candice Bergen, not particularly convincing as a prim Midwesterner), is certainly happy to see him. And just to ensure the film has more characters than it can possibly handle, there’s also Boyd’s trashy sister, Shauna (Wendi McLendon-Covey), her sex-offender husband (Tim Heidecker) and their pair of bad-influence brats (Ryan Lee, Amara Miller).
The main thrust is intended to be the combative relationship between Boyd and Mitch, and yet despite the proven abilities of both McHale and Williams to balance cutting humor with genuine pathos, the film never gives them anything interesting to play. Mitch hurls tepid insults and serves Boyd a squirrel at dinner when the rest of the family has chicken, while Boyd smugly condescends to his own blue-collar background (Mitch made his living selling toilets and proudly declares himself “North Central Wisconsin King of the Crappers”). It’s hard to believe the cast couldn’t have spontaneously generated better dialogue and situational laughs than they’re granted here.
Just as the film uses the otherwise superfluous Nelson to contrive a way to get father and son together, the equally contrived reason behind the inevitable reconciliation becomes Boyd’s overnight road trip back to Chicago when he realizes he forgot to pack Douglas’ gifts. Boyd’s car immediately breaks down and Mitch comes to the rescue, so the pair can work out their differences en route. Meanwhile, Luann and Donna get blotto in the family attic while Luann complains about her flatlining sex life and Donna reveals Boyd’s childhood interest in painting (specifically, painting portraits of Bea Arthur — just because).
Neither warm and fuzzy in the best holiday movie traditions, nor edgy and irreverent a la “Bad Santa” (coincidentally also co-starring Graham, to better effect), it’s something of a mystery what audience “A Merry Friggin’ Christmas” intends to serve. Williams fans seeking one more fix of his comedic genius face certain disappointment, and admirers of Shapeero’s smallscreen work (which includes two dozen episodes of McHale starrer “Community” and a plethora of acclaimed U.S. and U.K. comedies from “Parks and Recreation” to “Peep Show”) will simply shrug and move on.
No fewer than 17 yuletide songs from indie-rock favorites like Rufus Wainwright, Ben Kweller and Sufjan Stevens flood the soundtrack, in a desperate attempt to enliven a lifeless romp. Tech credits are suitable enough for smallscreen play.