Depending on whom you ask, Darren McGavin’s most memorable role was either Kolchak (The Nightstalker) or the cantankerous “old man” of A Christmas Story. Though a fan of both, I unequivocally vote for the latter. McGavin’s portrayal of a father “who worked profanity the way other artists might work oils or clay” is a hysterical mix of anger, humor and understated parental love.
Forget It’s A Wonderful Life; Bob Clark’s sentimental and subversive A Christmas Story is the true classic. There’s a good reason TBS runs a 24-hour Christmas Day marathon of the 1983 film: It’s quite possibly the best holiday film ever made. It’s also very telling that over the last 20-plus years Hollywood has been unable (or unwilling) to produce a holiday story with as much insight and humor as this small-budget film. I mean, would any truly sane person gather with the family for a yuletide screening of Jim Carrey’s cinematic blasphemy, The Grinch?
Endlessly quotable, A Christmas Story strikes the perfect note between sweet and cynical, touching and ridiculous. It captures the spirit of holiday Americana with an uncanny eye on the ridiculous. Taken from humorist Jean Shepherd’s vignettes about Christmastime in 1940s Indiana, the film follows little Ralphie Parker (the wonderful Peter Billingsley) and his endless quest for an official Red Ryder, Carbine Action, 200-Shot Range BB Gun. Too bad his parents, his teacher and even Santa Claus think he’ll shoot his eye out. Undaunted, Ralphie launches into an all-out campaign to convince his parents that this lethal weapon will be safe in his hands.
Following his friends and family through the weeks before Christmas, Ralphie contends with a drunken department-store Santa, the triple-dog dares of schoolyard bullies, a set of pink bunny pajamas (“He looks like a deranged Easter Bunny!”) and a depressingly hilarious holiday dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Though the movie has a gleefully nasty sense of humor, it delivers sentimental moments with a genuine sense of nostalgia. There’s keen attention paid to the period details: This is 1940s small-town America as seen through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy. Even Ralphie’s extravagant fantasy sequences feel authentic. His vision of a life ruined by ‘soap poisoning’ is a small moment of genius.
The cast is uniformly strong, with kids who seem like kids and parents who irritate as much as they inspire. Melinda Dillon expertly rounds out the Parker family as the much-beleaguered mother. It’s a performance that avoids caricature and emerges as a goofy portrait of a woman who encounters life’s cruel absurdities with humor and grace.
The movie is a minor miracle, considering director Bob Clark’s track record as a filmmaker. The auteur of both Porky’s films, Baby Geniuses and Rhinestone, Clark surprisingly masters A Christmas Story’s tone.
On its surface the film plays like a light comedy but, in truth, the script highlights the everyday meanness and pessimistic frustrations of youth. Clark had the good sense to allow Shepherd, an accomplished radio storyteller, to narrate. His bemused cynicism invites us to laugh at the petty injustices and silly obsessions of childhood.
What A Christmas Story especially gets right is the revelation that Christmas, from a kid’s point of view, isn’t about peace on Earth and goodwill toward man. It’s about getting stuff. Ralphie’s clueless schemes to get his BB gun are hilarious not because he thinks he’s such a diabolical genius, but because, as kids, we were just as foolish. We laugh because we remember the agony of growing up and we wonder how we ever survived.
Showing at 3:30 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 12, at the Michigan Theater (603 E. Liberty, Ann Arbor; 734-668-8463). .
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].