Case Number 23039: Small Claims Court

HAPPY HOLIDAYS COLLECTION

Trading Places
Paramount // 1983 // 116 Minutes // Rated R
All I Want For Christmas
Paramount // 1991 // 92 Minutes // Rated G
Surviving Christmas
Paramount // 2004 // 91 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Last Holiday
Paramount // 2006 // 111 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // December 31st, 2011

The Charge

"Just figure out a way to sell these leftover DVDs." -- Unnamed Paramount Executive

The Case

I've reviewed quite a few DVD and Blu-ray box sets over the past few years, and the Happy Holidays Collection is certainly one of the most peculiar. The basic idea makes sense: Paramount has issued four Christmas-themed comedies in one low-priced box set. Still, I can't help but wonder how many potential buyers who might be interested in the cutesy, G-rated All I Want for Christmas would also be eager to check out the profane, R-rated Trading Places (or vice-versa). Even more strangely, the series is not arranged in chronological or alphabetical order. Instead, it helpfully orders the films from least to greatest. Believe me, there's a sizable gap between the two.

All I Want for Christmas was the only film in this collection I hadn't seen before, and it's also the only one I sincerely hope I never have to sit through again. The story centers on two siblings: Ethan (Ethan Embry, Eagle Eye) and Hallie O'Fallon (Thora Birch, Ghost World), whose parents have recently split. Ethan and Hallie want nothing more than to bring their mom and dad back together again, so they begin plotting an excessively precocious scheme. It's clear that the movie intends to recall the beloved A Christmas Story with its mildly irreverent cutesiness, but it plays as an unbearably calculated attempt to yank on our heartstrings. Additionally, the message it delivers is flat-out irresponsible: kids, if you just believe in Santa, mommy and daddy will love each other again! A film that was intended to play as a heartwarming story instead appears to be a never-ending source of eternal heartbreak for young viewers from broken homes.

Things don't improve too much with Surviving Christmas, but at least the movie has a certain kind of train wreck appeal. Ben Affleck (The Sum of All Fears) stars as a wealthy executive whose cutthroat business practices and annoying personality have prevented him from having any genuine friends. When the holidays come around, he starts feeling rather lonely, so he decides to "rent" a family for Christmas and force them to bring him Christmas cheer. The film begins as a ruthlessly mean-spirited Christmas comedy (one can envision a version of this movie directed by Danny DeVito) and slowly transforms into something impossibly syrupy. The overqualified supporting players seem disinterested at every stage of this mess, particularly James Gandolfini (The Sopranos) and Christina Applegate (Up All Night). Ben Affleck attempts to compensate for the supporting cast's lack of energy with a manic, frenzied performance that is simply painful to watch. Affleck can be a capable actor in the right role, but high-octane comedy isn't his strong suit. There are a few surprisingly entertaining gags scattered throughout the proceedings (particularly an opening credits montage of Christmas-themed misery) and some decent ideas, but Surviving Christmas is ultimately a disaster.

Intriguingly, the two successful films in this collection aren't nearly as concerned with Christmas as the two failures, as both merely use the holiday season as an unobtrusive backdrop for their stories. The first is Wayne Wang's Last Holiday, which stars Queen Latifah as an ordinary working woman who decides to take a grand vacation after she learns that she only has a few weeks left to live. It's a tricky concept for a goofy comedy, but somehow Wang pulls off a satisfying blend of heartfelt drama and broad laughs. Last Holiday plays like the best film Tyler Perry never made, and a large part of that is thanks to Latifah's warm, appealing performance in the central role. It's an ideal star vehicle for the actress, and she and Wang manage to sell some challenging scenes (such as the moment of awkward, moving comedy/drama in which Latifah starts an unintentional call-and-response routine with a church choir after she starts yelling at God). Pros like Timothy Hutton (Leverage), Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad), Gerard Depardieu (Green Card) and LL Cool J (Any Given Sunday) do fine work as key supporting players, with Depardieu standing out as a renowned chef who becomes enamored with Latifah. It's an imperfect movie, but somehow vastly more effective than it has any right to be.

However, the best film of the collection is John Landis' terrific 1983 comedy Trading Places, in which two devious businessman (Ralph Bellamy, Pretty Woman and Don Ameche, Cocoon) decide to destroy the life of wealthy employee Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd, Dragnet) and give Louis' esteemed position and possessions to homeless criminal Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy, Beverly Hills Cop). The plot is a simple twist on Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, but the film boasts a wickedly ribald sense of humor, some smart social commentary and a handful of terrific comic performances. Murphy arguably does his best work as Valentine, delivering a giddy comic performance with a joyful edge which will instantly wipe away the memories of Norbit and The Adventures of Pluto Nash and remind you of what an electrifying comic presence he once was. The film also seems particularly relevant in the age of Occupy Wall Street; the comeuppance one corrupt businessman receives is particularly, uh, cathartic (his fate involves a horny gorilla). There's precious little Christmas-y material in the film save for a sequence in which a particularly desperate Aykroyd dresses up as Santa Claus and nearly goes on a shooting spree, but it's guaranteed to provide far more cheer than the majority of Christmas comedies.

The DVDs contained are simply older releases that have been repackaged, and the quality largely seems to depend on how recently the DVDs were released. The worst-looking of the bunch is Surviving Christmas, which is soft, garish and suffers from loads of bleeding. On the other hand, Trading Places looks surprisingly sharp and crisp considering its age. Last Holiday and All I Want for Christmas look adequate, but never really impress. Audio is also perfectly sufficient on all four releases as well, with Trading Places and Last Holiday doing the strongest work (Elmer Bernstein's classically-themed score sounds particularly robust on the former). Obviously, these repackaged discs contain the same extras as before. Trading Places gets a handful of featurettes, some deleted scenes and a pop-up trivia track, Last Holiday gets three featurettes, deleted scenes and a pair of recipes featured in the film, Surviving Christmas gets a making-of featurette, an alternate opening and a storyboard gallery and All I Want for Christmas gets nothing.

In this day and age, odds are you can find any one of these movies for five bucks or less. Honestly, I have a hard time imagining anyone wanting to own all four of these movies, but if any of you are out there, here they are in a low-priced package. This is a strange collection.

The Verdict

Last Holiday and Trading Places are free to go; Surviving Christmas and All I Want for Christmas are guilty.

Review content copyright © 2011 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice, Trading Places
Judgment: 90

Perp Profile, Trading Places
Video Formats:
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)

Subtitles:
* English

Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 1983
MPAA Rating: Rated R

Distinguishing Marks, Trading Places
* Deleted Scenes
* Featurettes
* Trivia Track

Scales of Justice, All I Want For Christmas
Judgment: 20

Perp Profile, All I Want For Christmas
Video Formats:
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)

Subtitles:
* English

Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 1991
MPAA Rating: Rated G

Distinguishing Marks, All I Want For Christmas
* None

Scales of Justice, Surviving Christmas
Judgment: 55

Perp Profile, Surviving Christmas
Video Formats:
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)

Subtitles:
* English
* French
* Spanish

Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13

Distinguishing Marks, Surviving Christmas
* Deleted Scenes
* Featurette
* Gallery

Scales of Justice, Last Holiday
Judgment: 82

Perp Profile, Last Holiday
Video Formats:
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)

Subtitles:
* English
* Spanish

Running Time: 111 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13

Distinguishing Marks, Last Holiday
* Deleted Scenes
* Featurettes
* Recipes

Accomplices
* IMDb: All I Want for Christmas
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0101301/combined

* IMDb: Surviving Christmas
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0252028/combined

* IMDb: Last Holiday
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0408985/combined

* IMDb: Trading Places
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0086465/combined