Comfort and Joy


This year’s silver linings wouldn’t fill a glove. But I did find modest cause to rejoice when TV Guide ranked a staunchly nonvirtuous Yule fable from the guy who directed Porky’s as the second-best Christmas movie of all time, topped only by the one everybody’s sick of. When my pal Dolores introduced me to A Christmas Story years ago, we thought it was our secret. Now it’s the little movie that could, and my only beef is that the Bill Murray Scrooged, which I can watch every December just as happily, didn’t crack TVG‘s list at all. But while Scrooged is just a smart, good-hearted retelling of the most durable holiday chestnut this side of the nativity, A Christmas Story is a true anomaly— a Christmas movie that’s charming without a single uplifting moment. Not only does it give Jesus’s b-day such short shrift that Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles looks lucky by comparison, it skips the icky spirit-of-the-season lessons that Dickens showed a yet unborn entertainment industry how to substitute for overt religiosity. While memoirist and offscreen narrator Jean Shepherd isn’t Dickens, he sure beats Kathie Lee.

As a devotee of the pagan American Christmas, I usually just put up with all the Linus crap. But A Christmas Story is purely pagan, with a frank appreciation of the fact that, to a 10-year-old, cupidity doesn’t tarnish the magic of the holiday. It is the magic of the holiday, and no less a part of the poetry of childhood than imaginary friends or learning to read. The movie shows kids as coarse and sly, adults as tyrannical and wacko, and never tips its hand about how fond it is of both. For an American movie with a Yuletide peg to be this genial without ever turning treacly is a marvel, and it’s also got a gross-out joke so unexpected that I blink every time— the cut from the younger brother dropping his pants in the john to a close-up of dinner on the stove. After that, you can’t believe the dognapped turkey is that big a loss.

Despite being set in the same primed-for-nostalgia era as It’s a Wonderful Life, the movie’s period re-creation is less effusive, and so more convincing, than Frank Capra’s self-conscious poeticizing of what was, to him, the present. Otherwise, of course, they can hardly be compared. Nobody’s ever going to spot a subtext in A Christmas Story, while Capra’s classic so roils with them that ambivalence fiend David Thomson concocted a fabulous novel just from his misgivings (Suspects, this column’s token Great Gift Idea for last-minute shoppers, and good luck finding a copy). But with ickiness on the upswing everywhere you look— I already miss the much abused (by me, too) age of irony like a brother lost at sea— a movie this ready to celebrate middle-class family life’s secular pleasures, without pretending they’re anything but, looks like a beacon of good sense.

Elsewhere, scanning the airwaves for reasons to be cheerful, I note that The Drew Carey Show has lately gotten a lot better— and recommend you tune in pronto, because it won’t last. My early boosterism palled as soon as stardom turned Carey into such a chowderheaded swaggerer— one who carelessly trashed his show’s affection for how ebullient and mischievous America’s nobodies can be for the sake of preening antics advertising his new prerogatives, a kiss-off of the heartland defined rather than mitigated when he swapped the sweetness of “Five O’Clock World” for the overcompensatory braggadocio of “Cleveland Rocks” (which was plenty shameless in its original incarnation— poor Ian Hunter, trying to crack a key stateside market by handing its DJs a readymade). I know Carey’s relish for reminding us he’s made the big time is very much an average guy’s fantasy, and may well gratify more than it bugs fans who, like country audiences, think it’s their own victory when their stars get to showboat. Even so, he nearly lost me for good when he misread The Full Monty as a giggly-raunchy chance to wiggle his butt in our faces, in an homage that showed no interest whatever in the humane take on capitalism’s also-rans that his own series once shared with the movie.

However, for a four-episode arc that began early this month, Shirley Jones is on hand as a girlfriend 25 years Drew’s senior— which at one level is another stunt, like shipping him to the Great Wall. But nationwide confession that even The Partridge Family couldn’t make her unsexy is long overdue, and even better, the star’s so moonstruck that he actually acts abashed around her. For two seasons he’s barely been able to relate to his own castmates except as an entourage; it’s a treat to see him try to woo somebody, with an unfeigned, sheepish tenderness that turns him likable again. I’ve found myself hoping that Jones gets brought back as a regular, but I doubt Carey could put up with such a challenge full-time.

Then again, stranger things have happened— for instance, the middling-hit status of CBS’s midseason replacement, Becker, which I enjoy while finding its liberal wish-fulfillment droller than its one-liners. Eager to counter the impression that well-meaners are wusses, creator Dave Hackel has invented a spokesman for badass goody-goodyism— a bleeding-heart Archie Bunker whose rants are designed to make being on the side of the angels sound attractively obnoxious instead of drearily noble. Actually, of course, this middle-aged crank is an unlikely paragon of embittered virtue— a Harvard Med grad who’s forsworn lucre to run a ramshackle clinic in the Bronx, helping the underprivileged while getting yuks by lecturing them about their stupidity and us about ours. Just to leave no doubt that Becker isn’t some p.c. lame-o, he even smokes, although from the gingerly way star Ted Danson handles his one cigarette per episode you’d think they killed instantly, not gradually.

As a projection of Hollywood liberalism, this is on the self-valorizing side; venting that would sound fatuous in Bel Air gains bravado from being put in an inner-city doctor’s mouth. Since Becker’s supposed to be blunt, you also notice when the scripts turn timid— gun nuts he’ll abuse up front, but Trent Lott only by implication. Nervous that we’ll miss the point, Hackel rather overdoes both the curmudgeonliness and Becker’s saintly streak, clumsily switching back and forth without finding the middle ground that would convince us they’re aspects of the same person.

The implausible role suits Danson oddly well, because he’s always been implausible himself. These days, he looks more than ever like a handsome version of Frankenstein’s monster, and his charm’s unaccountably baleful underside is a quality that casting directors ignore at their peril. (Too bad the movie Danson was born to star in— The Ballad of Gary Hart— will never get made.) As Becker’s not-quite-love interest— the owner of a neighborhood diner where he seems to be the only customer, which is either sitcom existentialism or a low extras budget— Terry Farrell has a nice, shopworn attractiveness, and it’s a relief that Hattie Winston, as Becker’s capable African American office manager, gets to play a human being instead of an earthy-sassy cliché. But while Alex Desert is very enjoyable as the blind newsstand owner Becker bonds with, I do wonder about the sort of Hollywood liberalism that feels compelled to give a black guy a handicap to ensure that the white hero, and/or audience, can relax in his presence.

All of which does hold my interest more than Becker‘s more successful lead-in— Everybody Loves Raymond, whose title everybody but me agrees with. Nagged into paying attention by Entertainment Weekly, I’ve spent the last few weeks catching up, and for the life of me I can’t see what’s to flip for. Not that it’s bad, exactly; it’s just . . . oh, all right: I can’t stand Ray Romano’s stupid, hangdog, petulantly doleful face. His idea of how to make comedy out of self-pity is to treat it as justified, validating rather than ridiculing the boomer narcissism that locates everybody else— parents, kids, you name it— on a scale that runs from nuisance to spiritual wound. But this is so plainly an idiosyncratic reaction that I’ve been racking my brains to remember the loathsome grade-school classmate that Dolores thinks Romano must remind me of— my version of A Christmas Story‘s fur-hatted playground bully.