Peter Billingsley, the blond moppet from “A Christmas Story,” was 11 years old when he starred in that 1983 holiday-sleeper-that-became-a-classic (though it depends who you ask — I’ve always been something of a Scrooge about it). The image of Billingsley from “A Christmas Story” — goggle-ish glasses, beaming gopher grin — became, in its way, as iconic a movie signifier of raucous kiddie-culture spirits as Macaulay Culkin’s cheeky gaze of frozen horror in “Home Alone.” But that was 40 years ago. Billingsley is now 51, and he’s the dad in “A Christmas Story Christmas,” a latter-day sequel to the movie that a lot of people (maybe too many) think of as their all-time favorite Yuletide TV bliss-out.
In “A Christmas Story Christmas,” Billingsley, as the grown-up version of Ralphie Parker, is still a likable actor, but he’s lost any trace of that rascally BB-gun exuberance. He now resembles the former NBC News anchor John Chancellor crossed with a depressed Rick Moranis. The new movie, set in 1973 (33 years after the first film), is about how Ralph tries to give his family — his wife, Sandy (Erinn Hayes) and two kids, Mark (River Drosche) and Julie (Julianna Layne) — the kind of memorably old-fashioned Christmas his own dad gave him. Darren McGavin, who played “the Old Man,” died in 2006, but his spirit hovers over the movie as surely as Chadwick Boseman’s does over “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”
Ralph, an aspiring novelist, has taken a year off from the rat race to make it as a published author. He’s penned a sci-fi doorstop entitled “Neptune’s Oblivion” that’s been turned down by just about every publisher in his hometown of Chicago. But then he gets the word that the Old Man has died. To comfort his mother (Julie Hagerty), Ralph drives his family to Hohman, Indiana, to spend Christmas in the same mustard-yellow Cleveland Street home where “A Christmas Story” took place. And in this movie, of course, you can go home again. The holiday week will involve a handful of minor mishaps, a few broken bones, a touch of criminality, as well as several run-ins with key characters from “A Christmas Story,” all played by the actors who played them before.
I love Christmas, and I love countless Christmas movies and TV specials and pop albums, but “A Christmas Story” always stuck a bit in my craw. I get the appeal — when the film came out, its mixture of wistfulness and snark, of toasty conventionality and youth-movie anarchy, with Jean Shepherd’s narration poured over the whole thing like spiked maple syrup, was very much of its time, and only grew more universal with time. The film was set in 1940, but its spirit was that of the post-“Animal House” ’80s: the bullies, the mockery, the camp cruelties, the Old Man slobbering over his leg lamp. The fusion of tones always felt to me like a movie trying to hug you and spit in your eye at the same time. On the page, Jean Shepherd has a voice, but in “A Christmas Story” he was turned into an overzealous bard of storybook pandering, resulting in one of the first Hollywood movies that seemed to be selling nostalgia for…nostalgia.
The new movie, in its mild way, is less snarky and more sincere. The nostalgia here is more casual and homespun — it’s for dial phones and manual typewriters, for the early-’70s prices ($4 for a Christmas tree!), for the relative low-maintenance bar set for Christmas presents (Ralph, buying things like an Easy-Bake Oven and a Flexible Flyer, gets all his shopping done in under an hour at Higbee’s), and for the grandma who acts out her ruthless streak by using the (non)word “bajillion” in Scrabble. The premise of so many ’80s comedies, including “A Christmas Story,” was that men are children — a premise that began, after a while, to seem more like an ideology, a self-fulfilling desire. But in “A Christmas Story Christmas,” Billingsley’s Ralph, in his doleful way, is no buffoon. He’s trying to stage Christmas with joy and dignity, and he isn’t forced to navigate a “Jingle All the Way” world of cartoon capitalist corruption. The bullies are still there (descendants of the Bumpuses next door), but Ralph’s problems are more like how to fit the too-tall Christmas tree into his living room, or what to do after the presents get stolen out of the faulty trunk of his ’66 Plymouth.
There’s a funny bit about Christmas carolers (Hagerty: “They’re like ticks! Once they get to your door you can’t get rid of them”). And I liked the scene in which Ralph and Sandy have to explain to their kids to lower their expectations for Christmas, which carries a ping of reality in these insecure and inflationary times. Flick (Scott Schwartz), who now owns his father’s bar, which the film uses like Cheers, and Schwartz (R.D. Robb), a loser who can’t pay his bar tab, are back, taking swipes at each other, and so is Scut Farkus (Zack Ward), the wildcat bully who, tellingly, never appeared in Shepherd’s writing. This time, though, the film is actually about how Shepherd became a writer. It’s mostly made up, but we feel the spirit of it — that just like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” he’s a man of grand “ideas” who discovers himself in the everyday. “A Christmas Story Christmas” is like “A Christmas Story” with a softer center, but at least it doesn’t leave you feeling like you’ve had a glass of eggnog spiked with Long Island Iced Tea.