How many jolly songs about Santa, Christmas trees, holly and ivy, jingle bells and the birth of Christ can you fit on the soundtrack of one movie? Mixed Nuts goes for the record. It crams in seemingly every artist who has ever covered a Christmas standard, from Fats Domino and Eartha Kitt to Carly Simon and The Chipmunks. Thanks to digital sampling, we are even blessed with a chorus of cats performing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”.
Mixed Nuts is the latest example of a venerable Hollywood marketing tradition – the Christmas movie, set during Yuletide and aimed at the December/January holiday market. This is a curious fact of popular cinema which many of us forget when we look at movies from the past: the business of studios specifically designing films for the calendar year as Christmas or Easter movies, Summer/Winter movies, whatever. The Xmas tradition incorporates films both sublime (Frank Capra’s Itís a Wonderful Life, 1946) and inane (the Home Alone series of the ‘90s).
At one level at least, all these movies are attempting the same thing: trying, for a precious, fleeting moment, to make the real world and a movie world coincide, to make it seem as if the whole ritual of Christmas was magically happening for audiences not only in their streets, shops, churches and homes, but also in the make-believe, pre-fabricated world of a Hollywood film.
However, watching an American Christmas movie “on delay” in Melbourne two months later in February can be a depressing experience – particularly when the film is as woeful as this one.
Philip (Steve Martin) runs a hotline service for people contemplating suicide. He is a stiff, neurotic chap, and his assistants (played by Madeline Kahn and Rita Wilson) lead spinsterish lives of equal misery. Christmas Eve for these “lifesavers” (that was the Australian release title for the film) begins with a nasty landlord (Garry Shandling) serving an eviction notice, and builds to burlesque chaos as a horde of wacky acquaintances invades the premises.
The title indicates the intended spirit of the piece. Writer-director Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle, 1993) tries to revive the populist stream of 1970s American comedy in the vein of Car Wash (1976), movies that celebrated the diversity of ordinary, working-class people and their daggy, everyday experiences. So Mixed Nuts throws in a transvestite (Liev Schreiber, who does a wonderful dance with Martin), a ukelele-strumming nerd (Adam Sandler) and Gracie (Juliette Lewis), who storms around sassily despite the fact that she is extremely heavy with child.
The telephonic lifesavers are not pure, saintly beings but extremely flawed, unable to really reach out emotionally to those around them. Naturally, a lot of these personality flaws and emotional blocks get sorted out in time for a feel-good Christmas finale.
One can detect, throughout, an unholy affinity with a certain Australian populist comedy, namely The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliott, 1994), released in USA only 5 months before Mixed Nuts. But the scenes featuring the gang of eccentrics also mark the limit of its populist spirit, since they are tainted with an insistent comedy of humiliation, a lack of generosity toward characters who are markedly different from the norm. By the end, Ephron has paired off Phillip with a romantic partner but, tellingly, there is no such Christmas bonus for the man in the dress.
So Mixed Nuts seriously misses that sense of life’s daily possibilities, which informs the best populist comedies. Each character in turn experiences romance, fun, fulfilment or belonging – but such Christmas cheer is rendered in a listless, indifferent fashion. We are a very long way from the spontaneous, communal sing-alongs of Capra’s movies, or even the average dancing-in-the-street set-piece typical of many 1980s teen musicals.
What possessed the normally canny Ephron to take on this project? It is based on a 1982 French comedy, the title of which (Le père Noël est une ordure) is gingerly left untranslated in the credits – I guess Father Christmas is a Turd is not exactly an ideal title for a wholesome, American entertainment. One imagines that the humour of the original was pretty black, given that all the comic situations inherent in the lifesaver situation hinge on pain, misery or death.
There’s a split second, for instance, where the comedian Steve Wright makes a cameo. He rings the lifesavers from a public booth, where he holds a gun to his head. But the line is faulty, so the counsellor immediately starts urging him: “Click it! click it!” If you want to see how this gag works out, see the film. But, suffice to say, it is one of the few moments that play on a knife edge of gamely outrageous tastelessness.
In fact, Ephron's occasional forays into the taste-free zone provide the only bright moments in this otherwise dull exercise. It is a dispiriting carnival: someone falls over, a precious object is smashed, the electricity blacks out every 30 seconds or so – but the mayhem never becomes infectious. Of the cast, only Martin and Kahn are allowed to perform any mildly amusing business; the rest come over as merely strident (Lewis), charmless (Wilson), blank (Anthony LaPaglia) or misplaced (Shandling).
© Adrian Martin February 1995