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Looking Back: All I Want For Christmas (1991)

Sometimes a guilty pleasure can wear out its welcome and become an actual source of guilt. This was my relationship with “All I Want For Christmas,” a rotten yuletide comedy that I used to watch every December for many years. Why? Like a lot of sentimental movie goers, the Christmas season makes me want to re-visit films like “A Christmas Story,” “Elf” and, yes, even “Santa Claus: The Movie.” In between viewing reliable, genuinely heartwarming movies that are worth seeing annually, I’d also throw in a few Christmas themed turkeys for variety. I went nearly a decade of always giving “All I Want For Christmas” an annual watch before I finally came to my senses. What in the world was I thinking?

This Christmas-themed remake of “The Parent Trap” stars Ethan Embry and Thora Birch as Ethan and Hallie, two spoiled New York rich kids who scheme to get their separated parents back together. Mom (played by Harley Jane Kozack) is business minded and slick, while her more salt of the earth husband (Jamey Sheridan) owns a greasy spoon diner. It seems the city mouse/country mouse dynamic between the two of them has caused a rift.  While Ethan’s plan to reconnect his parents involves scaring off his mother’s twerp of a new beau (Kevin Nealon), Hallie simply asks a department store Santa (Leslie Nielsen) to make her greatest wish come true. Standing around in the background of many scenes, grandly but looking lost, is none other than Lauren Bacall, playing the all-knowing grandmother.

Why did I give this a pass for so many years? A few possible reasons: a chance to see Embry (who has changed his name a few times over the course of his career) and Birch, whose later work I enjoyed. There’s also the oddity of seeing Nealon, a former “SNL” vet, and Bacall, one of the screen goddess legends of cinema, in the same movie- both are good under the circumstances but, to say the least, deserve better material. There’s also Bacall and Birch singing “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” Nielsen’s easy going charm as Santa and Stephen Bishop’s “All I Want” (which should have been a hit but wasn’t).

Here’s why I should have sobered up and tossed out this poisoned egg nog a decade ago: its an obnoxious, cloying piece of holiday exploiting nonsense. Among the unforgivable elements: Embry’s not-quite-there Noo Yawk accent, the big “Parent Trap” plot that involves a potentially murdering Nealon in an ice cream truck and an insufferable restaurant montage set to “Yakety Yak.”

The problem with movies like these is that they’re bait for fans of Santa Cinema and those searching for movies to watch with Grandma and all the kids present. “All I Want For Christmas” has the DNA of Frank Capra, John Hughes, Walt Disney and a Yanni music video, all spliced into a toxic mutation.

Audiences gave the film the cold shoulder upon its release in the fall of 1991 but it’s a title I see pop up a great deal on TV and in the DVD bin whenever snow turns up. It seems someone is watching, “Christimas With the Kranks,” “Deck the Halls” and this movie every year. It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one whose fallen for this swill year after year.

Which reminds me…it’s December. Time to watch “All I Want For Christmas” again!

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