Be Reel, Guys is a weekly movie podcast from Chance Solem-Pfeifer and Noah Ballard. Each time out, they discuss and reappraise three movies of a very specific genre. Find past episodes here, and listen to their holiday episode below.
In this week’s podcast—one Chance and I have dubbed “Christ the Lewd”—we’ll be taking a look at three holiday movies that take the gross-out, raunchy comedy approach. Those familiar with the podcast or my personality in general will know that the traditional Christmas film is a particular favorite of mine. As such, I could tell that the moment we picked this genre, Chance was going to go to work destroying not only the movies we picked—granted they weren’t all winners—but the genre in general. Why do I love Christmas movies and Chance despises them? Perhaps it’s the sincerity, the typically-underlying romantic plot or my underlying Judaism and Chance’s passive rejection of his own faith, but I personally know no better way to celebrate this special, unquantifiable time of year by watching Kevin McCallister experience trauma that will certainly define his adult relationships or Nicolas Cage yell crazy things at Téa Leoni at JFK before she moves to London. But my appreciation for this genre of film is not without a consistent and critical rubric.
Now, the raunchy Christmas movie is its own beast, but it still exists within the same ballpark as all Christmas movies—aware of certain rules, and without fail, a moral code that involves subscribing to the magic of Christmas. By following these rules, all of these films—in order to be accessible to a general audience—explore, criticize and celebrate the suburban American family and what familial love means for the middle class.
And more specifically for these films, the genre posits the American man, once he has come of age, desires to reach said state of Christmas euphoria, and all manner of sins may be forgiven if the end result is an act of love. However, the conflict is found in a lack of self-awareness for these men: hubris, habit and cynicism interfere with the underlying morality code and sanctity of the very American sense of family. And the success or failure of these films, for me, hangs in whether or not these men find the clarity to understand familial love, and subsequently provide an entertaining entry into the genre.
National Lampoon’s “Christmas Vacation” will take a very John Hughes family—as it is film written by John Hughes—with a traditional hapless patriarch, eye-rolling rock of a matriarch and two kids of either gender with deep skepticism towards the situation they’ve been thrust into. It’s a movie that is deeply concerned with the prerogatives of the middle class, hanging the needs of Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold on creating the American Christmas ideal we’ve been led to believe is the essence of the season from films like “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “Christmas in Connecticut” and “Miracle on 34th Street.” And ultimately, the conflict of the film hangs on a suburban, middle-class father providing for his family through the tangible goal of installing a swimming pool. The world, however, conspires against Clark, never forgiving him for his own hubris, his own desire to be a man, as seen through his own subservient role at work, his sexual frustrations, an unaccommodating series of Christmas trees and an overtaxed electrical system.
This is a very cynical series of films. Often, it is their pleasure in punishing the protagonists for the people blood, fate or circumstance have deemed “their family.” In “The Night Before,” the biblical story of the three wise men is told through the conceit of an ersatz family being formed after the literal death of the traditional family unit. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s parents are killed, ironically and somewhat cringe-inducingly (due to the film’s steadfast celebration of drug and alcohol abuse), in a drunk driving accident on Christmas. His two friends, caricatures of an expectant father and a latter-season football player, bond together over the course of 15 years to form a family, albeit one that abets all sorts of unforgivable behavior in search of Christmas euphoria. But isn’t that the American understanding of what Christmas should be? Though the film understands this unattainable goal as a raucous, exclusive party, it speaks volumes to the idea that Christmas is the exercise of trying and failing to reach a physical state of being against a cynical, cold-hearted world. This tradition of failure acts as comedy in marginalizing these male figures who must learn that their own lack of understanding of what they have is the sole factor keeping them from reaching Yuletide enlightenment so to speak, understood in the narrative sense as man versus himself. It is Clark’s hubris and unrelenting quest to host the perfect Christmas that keeps him from doing just that. It is Ethan’s fear of commitment as a response to his fear of losing his family that keeps him from truly having a family of his own.
And in our third film, “Bad Santa,” Billy Bob Thornton’s Willie—a thief with the running scam of casing department stores disguised as the mall Santa—must come to terms not with the commercial limitations of American life or his own fear of commitment keeping him from connecting with his contemporaries, but his own cynicism toward the vulnerability that comes with the Christmas spirit he has been avoiding since his Dickensian childhood.
I mention Dickens because Willie is a Scrooge archetype, making his living through the naïveté of others who believe in Christmas euphoria, but ultimately offsetting his absence of belief with heavy drinking and anonymous anal sex. His adherence to counterculture in terms of the American Christmas ideal gives him an upper hand that allows his scam to work year after year—who would expect the mall Santa to rip them off?—but he has no stakes that tether his scores. He has no family to provide for, and his only family in his partner, much like our own as the viewer, is someone he seemingly hasn’t chosen, and their relationship hinges on tradition and survival.
However, when Willie’s ethics are challenged when he finds himself the guardian of a young boy with an inverse naïveté and longing for the Griswoldian American Christmas, Willie’s existence is violently altered. Now, despite his own cynicism, his ultimate desire becomes to provide this child with at least the semblance of a real Christmas. And in turn, the boy provides him the family, and thus the moral code, he’s been lacking in his life.
What separates these films from the typical holiday fare is their argument that familial love is not a foregone conclusion. Kevin’s mother is always going to find a way back to Chicago, even if it’s in that van with John Candy. Nic Cage was always going to pick the life of suburban satisfaction over Wall Street nihilism. George Bailey is always going to make it home. But our films aren’t about the path of least resistance. Clark isn’t going to bail out his cousin Eddie’s dire finances with his Christmas bonus. There’s a really good chance these 30-something guys probably do see each other way less now that they’ve settled down. And Willie the Mall Santa probably isn’t going to marry white trash Lorelai Gilmore and raise Thurman Merman. But for this moment, their creating one act of love on December 25th and subscribing to American middleclass values, we understand that they are good people.
The emotional payoffs of these films are the fade-to-white moment these characters—through indulgence, substance abuse and grand larceny—must discover within themselves. And they ultimately become films about people just like us: those who take family for granted by shaking them off as an annoyance, a burden or an enabling force that encourages our worst selves. And if there’s anything to take away from these films, regardless of Chance’s foregone cynicism, it’s that beyond the artifice created by this time of year, it’s a nationally if not internationally recognized venue in which one can appreciate how we serve the ones we love, both blood relations and those we’ve picked up through more interesting circumstances. They’re about having a little hope that something improbably will happen because you chose it was supposed to. And ultimately, these movies are about people who stay in touch even though they have no good reason to, even if it’s dressed up as a podcast, because they love each other. So even if Chance and I disagree, at least we’ve had this conversation at all and it has sustained our little family for another year. I love you, man.
—essay by Noah Ballard