Eddie Murphy's new holiday comedy, "Candy Cane Lane," won't join the ranks of Christmas classics, but it's not quite a lump of coal either. Murphy plays Chris Carver, happy dad to a beautiful family in picturesque El Segundo, home of this very newspaper (there's a funny flash moment acknowledging that, yes, LAX is just around the corner).
When Chris suffers a reversal of fortune, he becomes desperate to win the neighborhood holiday-house decorating contest. He and his youngest daughter stumble across a mysterious Christmas-fare pop-up store in which an even more mysterious salesperson ("22 Jump Street's" Jillian Bell, savoring the sinister) offers them the ultimate decoration: a towering, mechanical tree whose rotating ornaments depict the 12 days of Christmas. She has Chris sign a suspiciously long receipt without telling him the cost of his impossibly perfect purchase. What could go wrong?
Well, a lot, it turns out, as Chris finds himself desperate to complete a magical quest or be transformed forever into a tiny figurine in a Dickensian nightmare. This Prime Video offering assembles a glorious cast: Murphy's the star, but he's a touch subdued in his largely straight-man role, not a bad thing. The stretch in which Chris is depressed is some of the comic superstar's most real-feeling screen acting. The kids (Genneya Walton, Thaddeus J. Mixson, Madison Thomas) are talented. Chris Redd steals his scenes as a cursed figurine who has been without intimate companionship for too long.
But it's Tracee Ellis Ross, notorious comic sniper that she is, who finds the funny where most might have missed it, as Chris' wife, Carol. The subtle shades of her delivery, the precision of her finely tuned takes, make the most of her moments. (Her performance arrives just as she delivers another absolutely pitch-perfect turn in "American Fiction," coming in a couple of weeks.)
"Candy Cane" reunites Murphy with his "Boomerang" director Reginald Hudlin and producer (and frequent collaborator) Brian Grazer, so you know it's at least going to be slickly assembled. "Bohemian Rhapsody" cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel paints the tale in warm tones throughout.
But the sled is so weighed down by exposition, not even magic reindeer can get it off the ground. There's no room for character: Chris' only distinguishable trait is he's a dedicated wood carver (his name is Chris Carver, after all), but even that goes poof up the chimney the instant he has a chance to purchase the gaudiest Christmas monstrosity he can. It would be one thing if the lesson were that his lovingly designed handicrafts proved more rewarding than the magic mountain of self-adulation represented by the "12 Days" tree, but nope. His woodworkings quickly cease to be a thing in the movie.
The script has some local touches that will amuse Angelenos — apart from Candy Cane Lane being an actual place in El Segundo — such as the USC "Fight On" salute almost invoking "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," or talking heads on a ubiquitous television provider providing running commentary on the happenings. It also has some memorable lines ("What's Christmas without a little terror?"; "Make them suffer as only the French can").
But it also has a deadening clockwork quality. There's the usual heavy-footed deployment of the "comedy! comedy!" score to cue us to laugh or have feelings. The only thing more numerous than the Christmas references (the family members' names are Carol, Holly, Joy and Nick) are cliches, down to a Tarantino slo-mo walk for no reason. There's a musical interlude shoehorned in and gag payoffs that viewers will see coming from miles off.
But if you're firing up "Candy Cane Lane," you're not doing it because you're craving a hard-hitting expose of the commercialization of the holiday, or even the story of a man realizing what's most important in life. (Hint: It rhymes with schmamily.) You want to see Eddie Murphy surrounded by some Christmas-themed silliness. And on that score, it's fine enough, but destined for regifting.
'CANDY CANE LANE'
MPA rating: PG (for language throughout and some suggestive references)
Running time: 1:57
How to watch: On Prime Video Dec. 1
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