Saturday, December 6, 2014

Film Review: A Christmas Story

"A Christmas Story"  ** (out of ****)

It is such a simple idea for a movie. A young boy tells the story of a must have Christmas gift. Of course, when you are a child, is there any story more important? Getting the perfect Christmas gift, when you are a child, is perhaps one of the single most important moments in your life, with a great birthday gift coming in second.

The viewer realizes this simple truth as we watch "A Christmas Story" (1983), a movie, that with time, has become a holiday classic and, as a result of this understanding, may find themselves able to relate to our hero's story. Who among us has not had a "must have" Christmas toy our lives utterly depending upon having? Who among us cannot recall the feeling of joy when we woke up Christmas morning and saw Santa had gotten us that special gift? On the other hand, how many of us can remember the feeling of disappointment when Santa didn't bring us that gift? You felt a pain in the pit of your stomach. How could Santa let you down?

I too am able to relate to this story. I had my own special gift that I wanted for Christmas. I was five years old and desperately wanted a pair of Laurel & Hardy (a popular comedy team in the 1920s & 30s) ventriloquist dolls. They were my childhood heroes. When I found out such a gift existed, I knew, then and there, I would have to have it. The days and month leading up to Christmas I pleaded with my parents, please, please buy me the Laurel & Hardy ventriloquist dolls. But, they told me, it was too much money. My heart was broken. I simply couldn't accept such an answer. What child would? So, I kept pleading. Eventually I decided to ask Santa. He was at the neighborhood mall. I asked my father if I could wait in line and tell Santa what I wanted for Christmas. He agreed. And so we stood in line. The excitement grew the closer and closer I got to the front of the line. Asking Santa for the gift was a sure fired way of getting it. What did Santa care about money? Soon it was my turn to sit on Santa's lap and ask for the Laurel & Hardy ventriloquist dolls. But, a strange thing happened as I sat on Santa's lap. I was frightened to death! I couldn't speak a word. I sat on Santa's lap silently as he asked me what I wanted for Christmas. I forgot how to speak! My father, standing beside me, stepped in and told Santa about the ventriloquist dolls. Santa, at first was a bit surprised a five year old knew who Laurel & Hardy was but told me afterwards I would get the gift. Joy!

There is a moment in "A Christmas Story" when the lead character, a boy named Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) waits in line to tell a department store Santa what he wants for Christmas, a Red-Ryder Carbine Action 200 shot Range Model air riffle. When he finally gets his chance to tell Santa what he wants for Christmas, he too freezes and can't remember what he wanted for Christmas. Other children in line start to cry as soon as they sit on Santa's lap.

"A Christmas Story" remembers childhood. Why is it so many children eagerly wait in line to sit on Santa's lap to tell him what they want for Christmas and they start to cry when they get their chance? There is something scary about that moment. "A Christmas Story" knows this fact. That is one of the things I like about the movie.

The movie was directed by Bob Clark, who was actually an odd choice for this kind of movie. His previous directing credits include "Black Christmas" (1974) and the teen sex comedy "Porky's" (1982) and its sequel, "Porky's II:The Next Day" (1983) and was based on the book "In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash" by Jean Shepard, who was a radio and television personality. Mr. Shepard adapted the book into the movie's screenplay, along with his wife, Leigh Brown and Mr. Clark.

When "A Christmas Story" was originally released it was not a box-office hit. It grossed a little more than $19 million dollars and opened to moderate reviews. It has only become a Christmas favorite because of multiple airings on TV in the late 80s, early 90s, which have helped the film reach a new audience year after year and entertain older audiences.

We follow a young boy named Ralphie, who wants a BB gun, which his mother (Melinda Dillon) will not buy him because she warns him "you'll shoot your eye out". The story takes place sometime in the 1940s in a small town in Indiana.

"A Christmas Story" has a very anecdotal structure to it. Yes, Ralphie wants a BB gun, but, the movie gets side tracked with other going ons.This lessened my experience watching the movie. I would have preferred a stronger, narrative structure of the boy wanting a BB gun. If it was just going to be about his family and their day to day activity that's fine. They made that movie. It too is based on Shepard's work and is called "It Runs in the Family" (1994), which is generally considered not as good as this movie and deals with a lot of the same situations.

Watching this movie I couldn't help but think of Woody Allen's "Radio Days" (1987) also about a young boy in the 1940s telling anecdotal stories about his family. I love the Allen movie. While that too is anecdotal the difference is, "Radio Days" makes more use of its time period. It places a great emphasis on the music of the era and popular radio programs, all of which I also grew up with. The characters in that movie remind me of my family. I cared more about those characters than I do any character in "A Christmas Story". I find some of the stories in "Radio Days" funny. Nothing in "A Christmas Story" made me laugh out loud. In fact, for all the years I have watched this movie, I don't think I ever really laughed out loud at any scene. Maybe when the father (Darren McGavin) wins a prize that is delivered to their house. It arrives in a crate with the words "fragile" written on it. The father mispronounces the word mistaking it for Italian as the wife corrects him.

One thing I did find interesting about the movie is the relationship between the mother and father. It is a very interesting dynamic. Pay attention to the mother. She has a passive-aggressive streak in her towards the husband. She is always ready to cut him down to size. To burst his bubble. There is a scene when the family is driving home and they get a flat tire. The husband likes to pretend he is in the pit stop at the Indy 500 and bets his wife he can change the tire in four minutes flat. She purposely sends Ralphie to help out, knowing Ralphie will just slow down her husband and then she can tell him he didn't change the tire in four minutes flat.

"A Christmas Story" is well meaning. It is difficult to flat out hate the movie. But it feels too slight. I don't like the structure of the movie. I didn't warm up to the characters. And, mostly importantly, I didn't laugh out loud. Nothing I say will stop this from being a Christmas favorite and that's fine. I have no intention of changing people's mind. I'd rather watch "The Polar Express" (2004) about a young boy who questions whether or not Santa exist and the journey that takes him on. Simple story but told with greater importance.