“Christmas is not about money,” says Pepper (Jillian Bell), the passive-aggressive Christmas store elf in “Candy Cane Lane.” “Except that it is.” She could almost be describing Christmas movies. From the start, they’ve paired a celebration of the Christmas spirit, in all its enveloping toastiness, with a theme of raw economic desperation. You can trace this right back to the original Christmas movie — “A Christmas Carol,” and by that I don’t even mean the assorted film versions (though I grew up with them and especially loved the 1951 version with Alastair Sim) but the Charles Dickens novella, published in 1843, which essentially invented the modern Christmas.
It was a tale built around money, and the fear of poverty as embodied in Bob Cratchit. A century later, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was essentially a remake of “A Christmas Carol,” albeit it with a small-town American mensch at the center and Scrooge displaced onto the figure of Mr. Potter. James Stewart’s George Bailey ultimately faces financial ruin, and you could say that what saves him from it is the Christmas spirit: the love, the community, the faith in something higher.
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This year, I’ve been seeing made-for-streaming Christmas movies rooted in the financial hardship of the new precarious America. And that’s the taking-off point for “Candy Cane Lane,” though be warned: The movie interfaces with the real world…until it doesn’t. It’s cozy…and loony tunes.
At first, it seems to offer a variation on the Christmas-lights competition premise of the 2006 holiday comedy “Deck the Halls.” In the El Segundo enclave of Los Angeles County, a prosperous suburban street known, during the Yuletide season, as Candy Cane Lane is lined with houses whose residents enter a contest to see who has the best decorated home. One of them, Chris Carver (Eddie Murphy), is a man who loves Christmas so much that he has named each of his children after the holiday — Joy (Genneya Walton), Nick (Thaddeus J. Mixson), and Holly (Madison Thomas). True to his name, he also insists on hand-carving the decorations on his front lawn: the oversize nutcrackers and lovingly painted candy canes. Yet the nitwits across the street, who clutter their lawn with Christmas blow-up dolls, have won the contest four years in a row.
The stakes are heightened when Chris, who works in the sales department of a plastics company, learns three days before the holiday that he is being laid off. Murphy plays this cataclysm with an all-too-genuine rue and fear. Yet there is hope. The Candy Cane Lane contest has a sponsor this year (and will be televised on the local news), which means that the winner will receive $100,000. Which is just the cushion Chris now needs.
So far, so sane. But the movie, directed by Reginald Hudlin, take a turn for the fantasy/bizarre when Chris, out hunting for Christmas bric-a-brac, comes across an eccentric pop-up shop called Kringle’s that’s nestled under a concrete tangle of highway. The store looks small on the outside, gagantic on the inside. It’s brimming with delectable decorations. And it’s run by Pepper, the aforementioned elf, who is played by Jillian Bell with a hostile spark that could hardly be less elfin. Chris decides to buy the largest decoration there: a grand carousel tree that features, on each of a dozen levels, the Twelve Days of Christmas.
Once he sets up the tree on his front lawn, something magical happens. The creatures and characters from “The Twelve Days of Christmas” vanish from the tree and start showing up in real life. When Chris’s wife, Carol (Tracee Ellis Ross), walks into the backyard and sees seven swans a-swimming in their pool, your thought may be less “O come all ye faithful” than “Oh, Christ.” Is this what the movie is going to be? In a parking lot, Carol gets pelted by six geese a-laying. The four calling birds call Chris on his cell. The 10 lords a-leaping interrupt his daughter’s track meet.
But this, in fact, turns out to be a mere sideshow to the loopiest aspect of “Candy Cane Lane.” That would be the fact that inside the Kringle’s store, Chris meets a collection of six-inch-high gleaming porcelain Yuletide figurines who are very much alive. They’re led by the Dickensian Pip (Nick Offerman) and the Martin Lawrencian Gary (Chris Redd), and they’re a fractious crew, literally and figuratively animated, who lapse at key moments into compulsive caroling. It turns out that when Chris signed his credit-card slip at Kringle’s to buy the carousel tree, he was also signing a fine-print contract. And what that comes down is: If he doesn’t find the five golden rings, he’s going to become one of those figurines.
One of the things that’s painful about Eddie Murphy’s bad comedies is that his persona can be so forced. He’s putting on a funny face, and you feel the effort. I wouldn’t call “Candy Cane Lane” one of Murphy’s good comedies; it’s too long, too jammed together, and beneath it all too Christmas cookie cutter. Yet Murphy inhabits the role of a doting dad who lives for Christmas with reassuring ease. And the movie, as ramshackle a piece of holiday fruitcake as it is, kept making me grin — at the two newscasters (Danielle Pinnock and Timothy Simons) who are like mainstream versions of Christopher Guest characters, at David Alan Grier’s prickly Santa Claus, and at those antic figurines. “Candy Cane Lane” shows you that the Christmas movie as we’ve known it may be all used up, and that it has now entered its anything-goes surrealist phrase. ‘Tis the season to be batty.
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