Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Jack frost nipping at your nose. Tsunamis wiping out hundreds of thousands of people, everyone you know dying during a revolt against the French monarchy, your beloved wife suffering slowly and painfully from a series of strokes, and folks dressed up like eskimos.
Everybody knows that after turkey and some mistletoe, the movies help to make the season bright. Christmas is a great time to see a film. Everyone’s together, you’re too full to eat, the mall is a nightmare; the movie theater is the natural place to escape the hustle and bustle of the holidays (and all that pesky conversation with your loved ones). But if you think talking to your family is painful, that’s nothing compared to the brutality waiting for you at the multiplex. Almost every single big movie this season is a major bummer. If you want to see something this Christmas, I hope you’re in the mood to be incredibly depressed. Otherwise, your options are limited.
You can check out “The Impossible,” provided you and yours are up for a grueling journey through the worst of nature’s wrath. True, the main characters do okay, but the dead bodies lying all over the place kind of put a damper on the holiday cheer. The ad I saw on television earlier today described “Les Miserables” as something like “The most joyous, epic experience you’ll have in the theater this holiday season.” Yes, the joyous experience of watching two-thirds of the cast get killed by the other third of the cast, and a “happy” ending for one character when he dies and goes to heaven to be with another character — who already died of tuberculosis. The art house event of the month is Michael Haneke’s “Amour,” owner of some of 2012’s most ecstatic reviews, and an early frontrunner for next spring’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It’s also a pitiless depiction of death, with a beautiful, vivacious woman (Emmanuelle Riva) shriveling into a lifeless husk as her doting husband watches helplessly. You’re going to find it hard to sleep tonight, all right. Because your eyes will be all aglow — with ceaseless nightmares.
Even the so-called “escapist” fare this holiday season is awfully bleak. Tom Cruise’s crime thriller “Jack Reacher” opens with a disturbing scene of sniper violence; a man with a high-powered rifle picking off random pedestrians in a Pittsburgh park. “Django Unchained” has some laughs and some extraordinarily bloody gun violence — like “Les Miz,” it’s another film where a few characters kill the rest of the cast (including one who’s graphically ripped to pieces by vicious dogs). “Zero Dark Thirty” shows how the United States found and killed Osama Bin Laden — along with some horrifying depictions of torture. “This Is 40” is a family comedy — featuring a couple so crippled by financial problems and marital unrest that they begin to consider divorce. “Sopranos” creator David Chase made his first movie, “Not Fade Away” — about a band that can never catch a break. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is based on a children’s book — with intense battle scenes and a couple beheadings. Matt Damon’s got a new movie, too — about fracking.
“And a happy new year!”
Admittedly, there are a few lighter titles out there, like “Parental Guidance” with Billy Crystal and Bette Midler (I haven’t seen it, so I’ll hope for now that it’s not as painful as “Amour.” I remain skeptical). But the vast majority of movies filling multiplexes this week, including almost all the big Oscar movies this year, will leave you feeling worse than when you found those tube socks in your stocking on Christmas morning. My wife and I are planning a dinner and a movie date later in the week while we’ve both got some time off. After looking at the choices, you know what we decided on? “Monsters Inc. 3D,” a ten year old cartoon we’ve already seen three times. It was the only thing that didn’t look like it would leave us feeling (les) miserable.
And so, I’m offering this simple phrase, to kids from one to ninety-two at Hollywood studios. Awards season and serious, melancholy fare go hand in hand, but you might want to also consider the large audience that just wants to go to the theater around Christmas to munch some popcorn, have a few laughs, and ignore the continued existence of Billy Crystal. They’re supposed to be happy holidays. Shouldn’t they be that way at the movies, too?