We’re in the process of getting snowed in by flimsy festive fodder, most of which is indistinguishable – cheaply made, poorly written, floating on the assumed Christmas spirit of those watching – but there are moments when it’s easy to get naively hopeful. Seeing the involvement of Eddie Murphy in Amazon’s Candy Cane Lane is one such moment, the actor not only a key reason why Trading Places remains a December staple but a star who brightens whatever film he’s in, regardless of the season. It might have been a while since he’s been at his shiniest (2019’s Dolemite Is My Name being a fine example of what he can and will do) but at a time when star power as a whole is depressingly diminished, his presence remains a gift.
It’s then a shame that even he isn’t able to save this confused, convoluted little confection, clumsily crafted and increasingly, maddeningly hard to follow, a film that’s primed for kids yet will barely be understood by parents. It starts out in simple, familiar territory, a cross between 2006’s Deck the Halls and 2004’s ITV hit Christmas Lights. ’Tis the season and family man Chris (Murphy) is almost ready, engaging in his street’s annual competition to see which house can boast the most impressive decorations. When Chris is made redundant by his younger boss (a bizarre one-scene cameo from Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes, an actor who deserves far, far better), and it’s revealed that this year’s competition comes with a $100,000 prize, the stakes are suddenly made sky-high.
Chris then comes across a mysterious store selling extravagant decorations and is immediately seduced, ignoring the many red (and white) flags being flown by the strange assistant (Jillian Bell, misfiring on all cylinders). His display – an ornate, giant tree with all of the characters from 12 Days of Christmas – is a success, yet the morning after, the characters are all missing and Chris discovers that he has unwittingly signed a ludicrous contract. The assistant is, in fact, an evil fallen elf who has been making cruel, impossible deals that result in her victims being turned into china figurines. Chris, along with his family, must then collect five golden rings or risk the same fate.
It all unfolds so gracelessly, devolving into baffling, exhausting silliness, that it feels as if Kelly Younger’s script was being frantically written on the go without a clear idea of the hows and whys that are leading his characters forward. The rules of the magic are loose and imprecise, there are half-baked lessons about the meaning of Christmas, and the importance of family that never really get taught, the tone inelegantly shifts between supernatural kiddie horror (think Krampus for middle schoolers) to slapstick comedy to family drama, the jokes for the grownups are consistently, embarrassingly unfunny and so there’s no amount of A-list elevating that can save any of it, Murphy looking as confused as we are watching. He tries, as does the glorious Tracee Ellis Ross as his wife (who desperately deserves more lead performances on film), but they’re forever racing to catch up to the plot, which keeps awkwardly pretzeling itself into knots it can’t get out of.
The sunny California setting dampens any Christmas mood, as does the now depressingly standard lack of professional lighting in a streaming movie, and what should have been a welcome reunion for Murphy and his Boomerang director Reginald Hudlin is instead a rather bleak “where are they now” update. The bizarro plot might help Candy Cane Lane stand out from the bland, busy crowd of new seasonal movies but it’s just as limp and lacking in spirit as the rest of them. Murphy and Ross deserve better, and so do we, and so does Christmas.
Candy Cane Lane is available on Amazon on 1 December