Just like any other genre, the Christmas movie relies on a laundry list of tried and true formulas to get you into the theater, and some of them are becoming a bit tiresome. If you want to avoid getting suckered into watching the same old holiday schmalz-fest this year that you've seen the last ten years prior, and you're not sure how to go about it, take this list as my gift to you.
It Tries to Make the Nativity Dramatic
Movies that try to make a compelling drama out of the birth of Jesus Christ often hit a brick wall when they realize that there's really no story there. Sure, if you're a Christian the birth itself is a compelling moment -- key word being moment -- but there's nothing before or after that lends itself to the structure of modern drama. Witness the recent live-action drama, The Nativity Story, a horrid film that resorted to making Three Stooges of the Three Wise Men and creating entire absurd subplots about astrophysics in order to get around the fact that there's about five minutes worth of compelling material here to work with. Hopefully it will be a long, long time -- never, please -- before anyone makes this mistake again.
It's Called 'Jingle all the Way'
Seriously, let's all just agree on this one. There are many things that Arnold Schwarzenegger is suited for -- or was suited for around 1987 -- but one of them is not showering an audience with holiday merriment. The other day I was at Best Buy and the guy behind the counter actually tried to convince me that Jingle all the Way was a beloved classic that belonged in my DVD library. That's when I put on my glasses and took a closer look -- turns out the guy behind the counter was Sinbad. Enough said. Let's also point out that Turbo-Man seemed like just about the lamest toy since Tom Hanks trotted out that keyboard in Big that you had to play by dancing on the keys.
It's a 'riff' on A Christmas Carol
This is one motif that's been ground into the dirt. I think I can happily get through the rest of all my Christmases without ever seeing a film in which an angel/ghost/spirit tries to convince a businessman/executive/schlub that things would have been better/worse/the same if he had never been born/died/lived in Cleveland. This whole concept has been trotted out in so many ways for so many years that the basic plot device no longer plays to an audience -- it feels tired coming out of the starting gate. At the very least, Hollywood should put it down for the next ten years and let people sort of, kind of forget about it.
Plot Hinges on Bad Character in Santa Suit
Turning a Santa suit into a thing of menace was completely copyrighted in 1984, with Silent Night, Deadly Night. For those who haven't had the pleasure, that's the movie where a little boy watches while Mommy gets raped by a guy in a Santa suit. That's pretty much as far as you can go with that concept, folks. Hereafter, having a gun-toting Santa or a slasher Santa or a zombie Santa or whatever just isn't really going to have a lot of impact, horror-wise. One of the last John Frankenheimer movies, Reindeer Games, had a casino being robbed by guys in Santa suits, and America collectively yawned. The Santa suit is officially played -- if something R-rated is going to happen, from here on out it has to happen in an Easter Bunny outfit.
Plot Involves People 'Missing Christmas'
There is way too much technology these days for anyone to 'miss Christmas' unless that is their explicit goal. Even if you're amongst the goat-herders of Turkmenistan and the rest of your family is in Alaska when the calendar turns to December 25, you can still find some outlet to hook up your laptop and set up a video-teleconference link and be one with your tribe. Especially irksome are films that feature montages of people rushing through airports or other transportation centers like madmen to catch the plane or rent the car or whatever. In fairness, Home Alone is exempted from this rule because those people actually left a little kid behind, and that's probably against the law.
There's No Reason for Christmas Backdrop
There's nothing worse than a movie that declares itself to have a Christmas backdrop for no good reason. The primary culprit here is Ghostbusters II, which famously pronounces itself to be set at Christmastime and then followed that up with nothing -- there are practically no Christmas decorations to be seen in the film and the movie has nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas. That's just annoying. Trading Places is also sort of guilty of this, although it has that great scene where Ackroyd crashes the party in the Santa suit. Still, you get what I'm saying.
It Has 'Christmas' or 'Holiday' In the Title
That's just a shill tactic at this point. If your movie is so devoid of plot or substance that it's explictly holding out for a crowd who will go see it because it has those two words in the title, then shame on you. I actually sat through The Perfect Holiday recently (I had to, for work), which confirmed my worst suspicions about a movie that would go to market with such a shameless title. I'm not saying that Christmas movies can't exist as a respectable subgenre, I'm just saying that resorting to putting the actual words in the title would be sort of like titling the next Die Hard film "Stuff Blows Up" or titling the next Julia Roberts movie "A Sort of Romance." Try harder, people.