Combustible Celluloid
With: Shawnee Smith, Dean Winters, Chris Elliott, Bruce Dern, Caroline Aaron, Paris Bravo, Betsy Beutler, Gianni Ciardiello, Nate Torrence, Jack McGee, Christopher Riley
Written by: Peter A. D'Amato, Ante Novakovic
Directed by: Peter A. D'Amato
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some suggestive references
Running Time: 90
Date: 11/05/2021

Christmas vs. The Walters (2021)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Festive Fluster

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Annoyingly flawed, with ridiculous characters, unfunny jokes, and a bargain-bin visual style, the holiday-themed dramedy Christmas vs. The Walters may still brighten the season with its strong main characters and good cheer.

Diane Walters (Shawnee Smith) is the mother of two kids, teen Abby (Paris Bravo) and younger Dougie (Christopher Riley), with another one on the way. Feeling pressured to put on a perfect Christmas for her family, she is stressed out. Her obnoxious neighbor (Nate Torrence) is trying to outdo her with decorations, and her husband Brian (Dean Winters) toils away at a job that demands all his time.

Abby, who is 15, is dying to go to a party, but Diane is wary; yet she's also concerned about growing apart from her teen. Abby, in turn, has been reaching out to Diane's sister, Kate (Betsy Beutler), putting strain in the sisters' relationship. Meanwhile, Abby finds a stray dog, which causes even more trouble. Can Diane pull it all together to make a wonderful holiday?

The jokes in Christmas vs. The Walters routinely fall flat. A dog-catcher character is always hungry, and that's supposed to be funny. And a drunk Santa has been done better elsewhere. (Other, background jokes, like Diane's kitchen being covered in post-it notes, are actually funnier, as well as a crusty Bruce Dern in his too-few scenes.) Perhaps worse is the air of first-world problems that this obviously upper-middle-class family has; nothing that goes "wrong" here is of any real consequence.

Despite its characters being well-off, the film has a chintzy look, like old video past its shelf-life, that is frequently off-putting. (A flashback sequence establishing backstory for Diane is especially awkward.)

And yet, and yet, at the center of it all, Shawnee Smith — who, weirdly, is best known for the Saw movies — seems to hold it together, even as she falls apart. She gives a whirly, spunky performance and helps convey a believable family dynamic. It feels like there's a real shared, family history among the characters. And they somehow manage to convey a sweet, lovely holiday spirit that eventually rubs off, especially for those who love Christmas. Even the decorations begin to look nice.

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