An American Carol (2008)

This is one of those movies that's sort of on the boundary of what we'd consider discussing. It's not set at or about Christmas, but depending on your point of view it's either derivative of or based on arguably the most famous Christmas story set in December (we all know the manger thing happened in the fall, right?).

On top of that, An American Carol has particular significance to another project I'm working on for later this year. For reasons not even I can explain, I seem to have decided 2022 would be the year I finally watched through the various adaptations of A Christmas Carol, or at least all the significant ones. And while this falls near the low end of the spectrum of both the significance and adaptation metrics, it was released theatrically, so I decided to give it a watch.

Set in America in the "present" of 2008, the movie applies the "Christmas Carol" template to the 4th of July and the War on Terror in order to lampoon liberalism. In short, this is garbage.

The garbage is directed by David Zucker, who's actually got some cred in this genre (he made Airplane! and Police Squad, for those of you trying to place the name). The movie stars virtually every conservative has-been who was working in Hollywood at the time: Kelsey Grammer, Jon Voight, James Woods, and Kevin Sorbo all appear in this thing, as does Bill O'Reilly. The star, however, is Kevin Farley (brother of the late Chris Farley), who plays Michael Malone, a fictionalized version of Michael Moore.

Like Moore, Malone is a documentary filmmaker producing films about America's shortcomings. He's the one who gets visited by three ghosts (mostly one ghost with a couple walk-on parts at the end, but I'm getting ahead of myself). In addition to all that, there's also a frame story about Islamic terrorists trying to use Malone to kill a stadium full of soldiers. And all of that's wrapped up in a second frame story about Leslie Neilson telling the story to a bunch of kids at a Fourth of July picnic.

I'm convinced the meta-narrative's only here to justify giving Neilson a substantial part. It really serves no purpose and isn't remotely funny. To be fair, none of the other stories are funny, either, but at least they offer some semblance of an arc.

Let's move on to the plot - or plots, depending on how you want to look at this thing. After starting the frame story, the movie introduces the terrorists, who are losing the war in Afghanistan. For all intents and purposes, there are three significant terrorists, two of which are incompetent (and not actually evil), while the third is slightly less incompetent and is dedicated to the destruction of America. Things are going poorly for them, so they resolve to go to the US and find a Hollywood director to direct an anti-American film they can use as propaganda.

Cue Michael Malone, who makes documentaries that win awards despite the fact no one wants to watch them. He wants to make a feature film, mainly because he thinks it'll get women to sleep with him (there's a recurring joke about him gawking at breasts and getting slapped that should give you an idea of the kind of "comedy" this is going for). Malone is also organizing a protest against the 4th of July as a holiday. He meets the terrorists, posing as movie producers, and they begin discussing options. The terrorist leader almost immediately drops the movie plan, however, instead wanting to leverage Malone's status to get a pass to a July 4th convention where he could set off a bomb and kill thousands of troops, demoralizing America.

Filling in for both Bob Cratchit and Fred is Malone's nephew, Josh, a naval officer with several crippled children. They argue about the War on Terror and the 4th of July, but Josh invites his uncle over anyway. Of course Malone refuses, since he's planning on protesting the holiday instead.

Let's move on to the ghosts, starting with the movie's Marley surrogate, reimagined as the spirit of Malone's hero, JFK. It's a bizarre sequence, mainly serving to challenge the idea that JFK was anti-war by showing him making statements in support of America's might. He's not really a good substitution for Marley, as he's not presented as regretting his actions in life: if anything, he's challenging the way he's remembered. Regardless, he tells Malone he'll be visited by three ghosts, which is the main takeaway.

Again, that "three ghosts" thing is misleading. The bulk of the movie centers on Malone's interactions with one ghost, George S. Patton, played by Kelsey Grammer. Patton takes Malone to the distant past, his own past, the present, and even an alternate timeline's present in order to show him that the history of America's military is actually good. The alternate timeline, incidentally, features a world where slavery's still legal, since the US never fought the Civil War. The jokes are as offensive as you'd expect.

The other two ghosts show up at the end and are basically bit parts. The ghost of George Washington (Jon Voight) makes an appearance, followed by "The Angel of Death," played by Trace Adkins, who also appears as himself at the very end. Malone is shown a vision of the future in which the US loses the War on Terror and he's killed in a nuclear blast.

All this results in Malone having a change of heart. He also learns that the "movie producers" he gave passes to are actually terrorists. He teams up with the two good terrorists, who have decided they like America and don't want to die, and the three of them find the bad terrorist and disable the bomb. The movie then wraps things up with Josh and the frame story, and finally comes to an end.

I probably don't need to tell you this is awful. If the director of Airplane! had made something remotely good in 2008, you'd have heard about it. This thing got buried by history the moment it came out, and for good reason. But I'm not sure the breadth of that awfulness is immediately apparent. This isn't simply dull, unfunny, and poorly conceived - it fails to offer anything of merit.

I need to step back for a moment and acknowledge that, yes, I'm liberal, so I was never going to agree with the politics driving this mess of a movie. But agreeing with politics and ideas isn't the same thing as appreciating their use in film. One of my favorite movies is Conan: The Barbarian, a film that more or less functions as a philosophical treatise extolling the virtues of what can best be described as toxic masculinity. I don't agree with the politics behind that movie or its director, but I think it works as a film. Conversely, I agree completely with the politics behind Don't Look Up, and think its Best Picture nomination is a joke. I'm capable of separating my opinions about a movie's themes from my analysis of how those themes are presented.

To be clear, An American Carol isn't bad because its political themes and statements are offensive garbage. The movie is just bad. Not that I'm letting this off the hook for those themes. Even if I overlook how poorly these ideas aged since this came out, it's not like they were fresh in 2008. This came out the same year Obama was elected: the policies of the Bush administration were already clearly failures by that point. The ideas pushed by this movie were five years stale when it came out, even if you're willing to overlook how bad they were in 2003.

But, again, that's politics, not film. This could have been morally repugnant but still been funny (or at least engaging). It just wasn't.

I imagine my synopsis makes it seem like the film is propaganda, but I honestly think that's giving it too much credit. The movie doesn't really make a case for its political stance, so much as offer a sort of self-congratulatory affirmation for people who already agree with it. The movie asserts ideas such as "liberals hate America," then proceeds to mock them for it. Unless you already agree with that claim, the movie does not convince you of its accuracy. In short, no one would have been convinced by this drivel even if anyone had seen it.

Is there room for movies selling catharsis without substance? Sure, assuming they deliver their target audience something enjoyable. Once again, this falls flat for the simple reason that the jokes just aren't funny or memorable. It throws visual gag after visual gag at the screen, but all are superficial. None of the humor emerges organically from its characters, and none of it makes any kind of point. This feels like a facsimile of a comedy, rather than the real deal. If I were conservative, this movie wouldn't make me feel represented - I'd feel insulted.

Let's talk Christmas, or in this case, Christmas Carol, since the film is set in July. Structurally, this fails as any sort of retelling of the source material. The decision to elevate one ghost was clearly made to expand Grammer's time onscreen. And I get it: he's just about the only conservative actor who doesn't suck at his job. But then why do the other spirits at all? Why are sequences left in constantly reminding us this is supposed to be an updated version of Christmas Carol if you're not going to follow through with them?

On that note, why are we wasting time with a nonsense subplot about terrorists? It feels like two separate movie ideas crammed together in the mistaken belief either is funny or interesting.

I could go on, of course. The movie is racist, homophobic, and misogynistic, but I assume that goes without saying. It's an abysmal excuse for a film that no one should waste their time on. It's so bad, that I wouldn't even wish this on its target audience.