Christmas movies subsist on certain key formulas, and quite often the measure of a good or bad Christmas film is how well it plays with those formulas, either by working earnestly within them or by subverting them with festive, mischievous glee. You’ve got your “[Insert Key Figure Here] Saves Christmas” films, your “Holiday Cynic Learns The True Meaning Of Christmas” films, and of course, your “I’ll Never Find Love … Except At Christmas” films, all of which have been well-trafficked to varying degrees of success for decades.
It’s the latter of these categories which Christmas With The Campbells (in theaters and streaming on AMC+ December 2), the new film co-written and produced by Vince Vaughn and directed by Christmas TV movie veteran Clare Niederpruem, hopes to simultaneously engage with and lampoon. Like so many holiday romcoms before it, the film has certain key ingredients that never stray from the classic formula, from an elaborately decorated family home to an adorable dog to a quirky small town with plenty of snow and a few amusing local traditions. As always, it’s what the movie chooses to do with these ingredients that counts, and in the case of Christmas With The Campbells, that means swinging wildly between earnest holiday warmth, laugh-out-loud parody, and some elements which simply sink to the bottom of the stocking like a hefty lump of coal.
Jesse (Brittany Snow) looks forward to Christmases at her boyfriend Shawn’s (Alex Moffat) family home every year. She loves his mother’s (Julia Duffy) baking, his father’s (George Wendt) focus on decorating, and just about everything else in the cozy, quaint small town where Shawn spent his childhood. But when career-driven Shawn breaks up with her just before Christmas so he can go to New York to chase a new job, Jesse is left both heartbroken and at a loss for how to spend the holidays. Help arrives in the form of an unexpected invitation from Shawn’s mother: Come spend Christmas with the Campbell family anyway, because Shawn’s parents might just like Jesse more than they like their own son.
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Intrigued by the generous offer and the promise of certain familiar comforts, Jesse makes the trip to the Campbell home, where things get more interesting when she meets Shawn’s country cousin Daniel (Justin Long), who seems more in sync with her life philosophy than her ex ever was. As Christmas approaches, Jesse is faced with a new life path, which only gets more complicated when Shawn’s presence looms once again.
If you spend any time at all with adult-oriented Christmas movie fare this time of year, you’ve almost certainly seen some version of this story before, and that’s exactly the point. There’s a comfort in the structure that co-writer Vaughn, Barbara Kymlicka, and Dan Lagana are counting on, in part because it imbues the film with a sense of familiar warmth, but mostly because they want to take familiar seasonal premises and bash them over the head with some comedic weirdness. Mr. and Mrs. Campbell are constantly referencing their various sexual adventures and toying with various drug combinations, while Shawn is basically Moffat’s Saturday Night Live “Guy Who Just Bought a Boat” character, constantly rhapsodizing about his own greatness while hinting at some deeper insecurity. Then there’s the central twist of the story, in which a woman ventures out to her ex’s family home for Christmas, adding an extra layer of awkward strangeness to the narrative. It’s a surprisingly thoughtful blend of earnest and silly, and Niederpruem’s confident, Hallmark-tinged direction only adds to that sense of familiar surroundings ready to be subverted.
The cast is remarkably game for all of this, diving into the blend of safety and insanity with a comedic self-assuredness that runs from seasoned veterans like Duffy and Wendt to contemporary pros like Long and Snow, and even scene stealers like JoAnna Garcia Swisher as the town’s horny local baker. Moffat is remarkably, steadfastly over-the-top, Long puts on a folksy accent to enhance the Hallmark Movie-ness of the whole thing, and Snow is both deft at playing a romantic lead and solid as the Straight Man in this mass of holiday weirdos. Everyone’s on board, and that enhances the sense of being in on the joke, as well as the sense that the entire creative team understood the assignment.
The trouble is that, at times, that assignment gets really murky, and Christmas With The Campbells hits a few snags in its quest to have its Christmas fruitcake and eat it too. The film’s attempts to deliver the Christmas romcom goods while also pushing those goods into wild new territory are a highwire act, and more often than not you can feel the narrative teetering, threatening to veer too far into outright wildness or treacly mushiness. Both sides are worthy places to go, but the sense that the film never wants to go too far into parody or into playing it straight looms over the whole piece, and it becomes a story that never commits hard enough to any one direction.
That sense of noncommittal fence-riding makes Christmas With The Campbells a decidedly mixed bag of gifts, but never so much that it’s unpleasant. It’s an entertaining effort, one that will certainly pass the time while you’re wrapping gifts or trimming the tree with the TV on. Maybe just make sure the kids are out of the room first.