Family-orientated Christmas films broadly come in two flavors – the heartwarming tale of a selfish or immoral person redeeming themselves just in time for the big day, or straight out slapstick with lots of people falling over on ice and getting hit with snowballs. One Bad Christmas!, or Christmas In Compton as it’s known in the US, attempts to be both of these and more, without coming anywhere close to achieving its ambitions.
The story focuses on Derrick (Omar Gooding, brother to Cuba Jr), a law school dropout living in his father’s house but with dreams of becoming a hit record producer. His father, disappointed with his son’s never-realised ambitions, pressures him to make something more of his life. Derrick decides to prove once and for all he can be a success by getting the girl band he manages a big record contract. Unsurprisingly things don’t go to plan, and the film focuses on Derrick’s increasingly desperate attempts to make his dreams come true.
I’m going to admit something right away – a film called Christmas In Compton is unlikely to have been made with middle-class girls from the cosy English Shires in mind. But some films can have crossover appeal and for Christmas movies this is doubly true because of the universality of a lot of their themes – family, redemption and just having a good ol’ time.
This film does not have that quality. And the fact that it has a fairly straight one-star or five-star divide in online reviews may indicate that this one is meant for a niche market that does not include me.
One Bad Christmas! attempts to shoehorn in almost every Christmas-movie theme, but never delivers on any of them. The most promising thread comes from the exploration of Derrick’s relationship with his father, Big Earl. The character of Big Earl, played with warmth by Keith David, is clearly drawn and a great positive role model – he runs his own business selling Christmas trees, he supports his wayward son as best he can in the absence of his deceased wife, and encourages the local kids to aim high and apply to college. It is the moments that Big Earl fades from the storylines that the film really suffers.
The other threads in this film are not nearly as compelling. There is the tedious primary plot in which Derrick tries to get recognized for his hard work in finding and managing his girl band, only to be thwarted by the blandly-evil record executive, played by Eric Roberts. Roberts is neither sinister enough to feel truly villainous or camp enough to be an entertaining baddie. His actions appear to be driven by the demands of the plot, which has about as much depth as a paddling pool during an unseasonal heatwave.
If all that wasn’t enough, director David Raynr and his co-writers decided to also throw some romantic storylines in there for good measure. Derrick tries to woo the smart Kendra, who drives the heavy machinery on the lot, and Big Earl has a love-hate relationship with his deceased wife’s best friend. Neither of these plots is really given enough time for you to root for the people involved or be satisfied when they inevitably do get together.
The main problem with this film, however, is Derrick. The viewer is given no real reason to care about him and the success of his girlband. He is selfish and short-sighted, but not enough that you can love to hate him. When Derrick inevitably decides to do the Bad Thing that he will need to be redeemed for later, this comes out of absolutely nowhere and destroys many of the positive messages that the film had been building up about working hard and following your dreams.
Another major flaw with this film is that the bizarre tonal shifts make it impossible to know how you’re supposed to be feeling. It veers wildly from generic slapstick to romance, swinging back to bad-taste comedy (including a couple of extremely misjudged scenarios involving ‘hilarious’ female-on-male sexual assault), flirts with some serious conversations about race and eventually lands on Generic Christmas Message about the importance of family and forgiveness. Jarring music cues just serve to highlight how weirdly the film jumps about.
The fact that the film can’t work out what it wants to be means that none of these storylines progress in any meaningful way. The romantic subplot between Derrick and Kendra touches on the fact that Derrick is uncomfortable with being a father figure to Kendra’s eight year old daughter. But then he’s apparently OK with it for some reason. Some scenes come completely out of nowhere and then disappear, never to be referred to again.The main plot about Derrick trying to get the money he feels he’s owed by the record exec is so contrived you can smell the deus ex machina resolution coming as strongly as the gone-off eggnog you forgot was in the fridge.
In terms of dealing with racial themes, the film can’t seem to work out if it’s parodying them or just falling back on straight up stereotyping. There is one Asian character (‘amusingly’ called Steve Ho) whose entire job in the film appears to be screaming “I’m Korean, not Japanese!” to every Godzilla reference and liking terrible ethnic music. Whilst Big Earl is well-rounded, some of Derrick’s co-workers and friends fall squarely into the “black comedy sidekick” category, complete with slapstick routines and ineffectual criminal dealings. The film doesn’t do much better with sexism either. It starts off promisingly, having Kendra more than hold her own in a man’s world whilst competently driving forklift trucks about, but watching the three girls in Derrick’s band passively allowing themselves to be used as pawns in the wider plans of all of the men sometimes makes for uncomfortable viewing.
Some Christmas movies are fantastic – they are heartwarming or comforting or something that makes you weep silently into the remains of the Christmas pudding that you can’t eat because you have ingested a week’s worth of food in two hours. Others have a so-bad-it’s-good quality, for you to sit and watch in a semi-drunken stupor, enjoying slagging off how awful it is with that cousin you haven’t seen for two years. One Bad Christmas! however, does not fit into either of those categories, and despite some small glimmers of hope ends up being bland, shallow and above all, boring. Humbug!