Review: ‘Candy Cane Lane’ (2023), starring Eddie Murphy

November 25, 2023

by Carla Hay

Thaddeus J. Mixson, Genneya Walton, Madison Thomas, Tracee Ellis Ross and Eddie Murphy in “Candy Cane Lane” (Photo by Claudette Barius/Amazon Content Services)

“Candy Cane Lane” (2023)

Directed by Reginal Hudlin

Culture Representation: Taking place in El Segundo, California, the fantasy/comedy film “Candy Cane Lane” features a racially diverse (African American and white) cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A married father, who’s desperate to win a local Christmas decorating contest, makes a misguided deal with a corrupt elf, who forces him to gather items that are mentioned in the carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Culture Audience: “Candy Cane Lane” will appeal primarily to fans of star Eddie Murphy and anyone who will tolerate badly made Christmas movies.

Eddie Murphy, Jillian Bell and Madison Thomas in “Candy Cane Lane” (Photo by Claudette Barius/Amazon Content Services)

“Candy Cane Lane” is a rotten, weird, and unfunny mess. Add this junk to the list of Eddie Murphy misfires meant to be crowd pleasers but just turn off many people. There’s also a semi-accidental animal cruelty scene that’s played for laughs. Horrendous.

Directed by Reginald Hudlin and terribly written by Kelly Younger, “Candy Cane Lane” is the type of outdated and tacky movie that could’ve been released direct-to-video in the 1990s. But the fact that some big names were involved in making this movie (Murphy and Oscar-winning “A Beautiful Mind” producer Brian Grazer are two of the “Candy Cane Lane” producers), and because there was a large-enough budget for the movie’s over-reliance on visual effects, “Candy Cane Lane” looks misleadingly like a cute and glossy comedy.

About 15 minutes into the movie, viewers will find out there’s nothing cute about the onslaught of bad jokes, dull scenarios, annoying characters, and a tangled story that just seems to be making up things as it goes along. “Candy Cane Lane” goes off on so many different tangents, it’s like a bunch of half-baked ideas thrown into a trash heap that’s left to fester and then gets covered up with some shiny Christmas embellishments to attract viewers. There are some very talented comedic actors in “Candy Cane Lane,” but they often look somewhat embarrassed by the utter garbage that they have to say as their lines of dialogue.

“Candy Cane Lane” is the first feature film for screenwriter Younger, whose two previous screenwriting credits are for Disney+ shows: the 2021 TV special “Muppets Haunted Mansion” and the 2020 limited series “Muppets Now.” It just goes to show that hack screenwriters can get awful screenplays made into a movie if they know the right people who are willing to waste their money in making this type of humiliating dreck. “Candy Cane Lane” star Murphy is considered to be a great stand-up comedian, and he can excel in sketch comedy, but he has very questionable taste in choosing his family-oriented projects, which are usually low-quality (even with large budgets) and way beneath his talent.

“Candy Cane Lane” (which takes place in El Segundo, California, and was filmed in nearby Los Angeles) begins by telling audiences about a big annual Candy Cane Lane contest that takes place in El Segundo. It’s a Christmas decorating contest for the exteriors of people’s homes. The household that’s chosen as the one with the best decorations is the winner of the contest. A local cable TV station called Prism Cable gives coverage to the contest, which also has a Candy Cane Lane parade. Expect to see a lot of garish and ugly Christmas decorations in this movie that is supposedly “award-worthy” by Candy Cane Lane contest standards.

Chris Carver (played by Murphy) and his neighbor Bruce (played by Ken Marino) have been extremely competitive with each other because of this contest, which Bruce has won for the past four years. Bruce and Chris put up a front of being friendly with each other in public, but in reality, they see each other as fierce and bitter rivals. Winning this contest becomes an obsession for Chris, but then other things happen in the movie where the contest becomes almost like an afterthought, and “Candy Cane Lane” really goes off the rails into irredeemable stupidity. The character of Bruce is barely in the movie; his screen time is less than 10 minutes.

Chris and his wife Carol Carver (played by Tracee Ellis Ross) have three children. Their eldest child Joy Carver (played by Genneya Walton), who’s about 17 or 18 years old, is a star on her high school’s track team and is in the process of applying to universities. Middle child Nick (played by Thaddeus J. Mixson), who’s about 16 or 17 years old, is an aspiring musician who is in the school’s marching band. Youngest child Holly (played by Madison Thomas), who’s about 9 or 10 years old, doesn’t seem to have any interests. Holly is written as a walking cliché of what bad comedies do when the youngest kid in the family is a girl: She is only there to look cute, make some wisecracks, and help the adults when they need help.

Observant viewers will notice even before it’s pointed out later in the movie that all of the Carver kids have Christmas-themed names. Nick is obviously named after St. Nicholas. Even the name Carol has a Christmas association to it. These names are supposed to be an example of how Chris has a fixation on Christmas. Chris Carver’s name is somewhat similar to Kris Kringle (also known as Santa Claus), but the frequently whiny and petulant “Candy Cane Lane” protagonist Chris Carver has none of the appeal and charm of Kris Kringle.

Christmas isn’t the only thing that’s a fixation for Chris, who is somewhat fanatical about his loyalty to his college alma mater: the University of Southern California (USC). Chris (who is a sales executive) and Carol (who’s a manager at a peanut factory) met when they were students at USC. Chris expects all of his children to also go to USC.

However, Joy announces to her parents near the beginning of the movie that she doesn’t want to go to USC and would rather go to the University of Notre Dame, which is more than 2,100 miles away in South Bend, Indiana. Chris does not take this announcement very well and thinks that Joy will change her mind about going to USC. This conflict over Joy’s choice of universities is awkwardly brought up later in one of the movie’s many poorly written and sloppily staged scenes that fall flat with unamusing jokes.

Chris will soon have more to worry about than which university Joy chooses to attend. He’s laid off from his job at a company called Sydel Twain Industrial Plastics, where he was a longtime employee, but the company’s new owner is making staff cuts. Trevante Rhodes has a useless cameo as an executive named Tre, who coldly tells Chris in a conference room that Chris is no longer working at the company.

Chris gets a wrapped bathrobe package as a parting gift from the company. “I don’t want your fleece!” Chris says angrily. He quickly changes his mind and says maybe he does want the fleece after all. If you think this is hilarious, then feel free to waste time watching “Candy Cane Lane,” because this is what the movie is trying to pass off as “comedy.”

Chris eventually tells Carol that he lost his job, but he asks her not to tell their children because he doesn’t want the kids to worry, especially during the Christmas holiday season. Carol has her own job concerns: She really wants a promotion, which could happen soon if she impresses the right people.

It just so happens that the Candy Cane Lane contest has announced that this year’s grand prize is $100,000, which makes Chris even more determined to win, considering he doesn’t know when he will find his next job. With the contest approaching, Chris forces his kids to help him get new Christmas decorations. Chris and Holly find a “pop-up store,” which sells elaborate Christmas decorations. Chris and Holly go to this store multiple times in the movie and don’t seem to think it’s strange that they are always the only customers in the store and there’s only one person working there.

The first time they visit the store, Chris and Holly are in awe of all the unique decorations. They are greeted by a seemingly helpful employee named Pepper Mint (played by Jillian Bell), who convinces Chris to buy a massive artificial Christmas tree that is packaged in a container shaped like a giant sardine can. While ringing up the sale at the cash register, Pepper tells Chris that he doesn’t have to read the fine print on the long receipt before he signs the receipt. “Honestly, it’s like signing your life away,” she says with obvious sarcasm.

It turns out that Pepper is really a corrupt elf, who tricked Chris into signing his life away. Chris gets the spectacular tree that he wants: It magically unfolds into a giant 12-tier tree that can best be described as looking like stacks of Christmas cookie circular tin containers that are glued together. The tree is such a sensation, it makes the news on Prism Cable.

Prism Cable has two irritating news anchors: perpetually perky Kit (played by Danielle Pinnock) and constantly jaded Emerson (played Timothy Simons), who are an excruciatingly ridiculous on-air duo providing commentary throughout the story. Kit has decided that her irksome nephew Josh (played by D.C. Young Fly), who has an alter ego as a social media influencer named Sunny Roberts, deserves to be on TV, so she lets this dolt become an “on the scene” correspondent.

The Carver family tree’s lights are so far-reaching, the lights can be seen by an airplane in the sky. The problem is that by opening up this tree, Chris has triggered the unwitting “bargain” that he made with Pepper. Suddenly, things mentioned in the Christmas carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” start appearing randomly in the Carver family’s lives. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” famously mentions a partridge in a pear tree, two turtle doves, three French hens, four calling birds, five golden rings, six geese that lay eggs, seven swimming swans, eight milk maids, nine dancing ladies, 10 leaping lords, 11 pipers and 12 drummers.

They don’t appear in the order that they are mentioned in the song. Everything is haphazard, just like this entire movie. The seven swans are the first to appear, as they end up in the Carver family’s backyard swimming pool. Somehow in this very disjointed story, Chris finds out that in order to get out of this deal with Pepper, he must give her the golden rings. And so, there’s a “hunt” to track down these rings.

But that’s not where “Candy Cane Lane” gets really mindless. There’s a huge swath of the movie about Chris discovering that there are talking miniature figurines in Pepper’s shop. The figurines (which are all dressed as Christmas people from the 19th century) look, act and move like human beings. Pepper is keeping these figurines captive against their will.

Three of the figurines get the most dialogue out of all the other figurines. Pip (played by Nick Offerman) is a top-hat-wearing Brit who is the leader of the trio. Pip’s American sidekicks are sassy maiden Cordelia (played by Robin Thede) and goofy lamplighter Gary (played by Chris Redd), who occasionally bicker with each other. The other figurines that appear briefly in the movie to sing are a group of five carolers, played by the real-life singing group Pentatonix. The members of Pentatonix are Scott Hoying, Mitch Grassi, Kirstin Maldonado, Matt Sallee and Kevin Olusola.

Pip, Cordelia and Gary are desperate to be “free from the torment of eternal Christmas” under Pepper’s captivity, according to Pip. This all leads to an “escape and chase” part of the story that further jumbles the already idiotic plot. It’s as if the filmmakers knew they didn’t have enough ideas for the part of the story about the Candy Cane Lane contest and decided to come up with some bad ideas as filler.

Although there’s a disclaimer at the end of “Candy Cane Lane” that says no animals were harmed during the making of the movie, there’s some obvious contempt for winged animals in this film, because depicting and seeing these animals get hurt are used as wretched jokes in the movie. For example, in a scene where Carol is giving some powerful executives a tour of her factory, she sees one of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” chickens hiding in a packing box. In a panic, while the executives aren’t looking, Carol takes the bird out of the box and cruelly throws it at some operating assembly line equipment, where she knows the bird will be immediately decapitated. This decapitation is not explicitly shown on screen, but the movie makes it clear that the bird has died because of Carol’s reckless actions, and the “Candy Cane Lane” filmmakers want viewers to laugh about it.

The acting performances in “Candy Cane Lane” range from mediocre to stiffly awful. Murphy is just going through the motions playing the “stressed-out dad” character that he has played in several other terrible comedies where he’s the family patriarch who gets involved in some problems. Bell’s depiction of the Pepper character is a weak parody of Christmas villains. Apparently, Bell thinks bugging out her eyes makes her look menacing. Pip, Cordelia and Gary can best be described as irritating as pesky flies.

David Alan Grier shows up as Santa Claus, in a cameo role that is written in a racially problematic way, considering that people call him “Black Santa” in the movie, and he speaks like a lower-class person. (“Candy Cane Lane” screenwriter Younger is white.) When a white Santa Claus is in a movie, no one in the movie says, “Oh, look, there’s White Santa.” A black man with the name Santa Claus in a movie doesn’t have to be identified as “Black Santa” by the movie’s characters, and he doesn’t have to get reduced to speaking like an angry black man from the ghetto. It’s very passive-aggressive racism from the “Candy Cane Lane” filmmakers.

And for the love of cinema, the filmmakers of these horrible “comedies” about African American families need to stop making every African American teenage boy in the family have integrity problems and/or portrayed as not being a good student in school. “Candy Cane Lane” has an unnecessary plot development about Nick being deceitful by hiding a secret from his family: He’s close to flunking in his math class, and his parents find out about this lie.

“Candy Cane Lane” is not the type of atrocious film with moments that overcome the lousy parts of the movie. “Candy Cane Lane” just gets worse and worse, until there’s no hope the story will ever recover. And just like many obnoxiously terrible movies, “Candy Cane Lane ” has end credits with a blooper reel that shows the cast members enjoyed making this trash. It’s probably more enjoyment than most viewers will get if they have the endurance to watch “Candy Cane Lane” until the very end.

Amazon MGM Studios released “Candy Cane Lane” in select U.S. cinemas on November 24, 2023. Prime Video will premiere the movie on December 1, 2023.

Review: ‘I’m Totally Fine,’ starring Jillian Bell and Natalie Morales

January 2, 2023

by Carla Hay

Jillian Bell and Natalie Morales in “I’m Totally Fine” (Photo courtesy of Decal)

“I’m Totally Fine”

Directed by Brandon Dermer

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the U.S., the sci-fi comedy film “I’m Totally Fine” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Not long after her best friend/business partner dies, a 36-year-old woman finds out that an alien from outer space has embodied the form of her dead best friend.

Culture Audience: “I’m Totally Fine” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Jillian Bell, Natalie Morales, and independent films that try too hard to be offbeat comedies but are actually quite dull.

Natalie Morales and Jillian Bell in “I’m Totally Fine” (Photo courtesy of Decal)

“I’m Totally Fine” is a one-note slog masquerading as a quirky comedy for people who think this type of independent film automatically deserves praise. The entire movie has this self-congratulatory, repetitive tone: “You’re supposed to laugh because this is a low-budget film starring fairly well-known actresses who’ve been in much better comedies, so their filmographies should make this movie funny too.” Spoiler alert: “I’m Totally Fine” is not funny.

The movie’s very thin plot gets stretched to the point where it breaks, and it goes from tedious sarcasm to sentimental mush. None of the movie’s emotional tone looks genuine or natural, despite the efforts of the co-stars, and it’s only made worse by the movie’s sluggish pacing. “I’m Totally Fine” (directed by Brandon Dermer and written by Alisha Ketry) looks like the type of movie that was made with an unfinished screenplay, with the hope that the cast members would be able to make goofy facial expressions and do some improvisation, in an attempt to make the movie interesting.

“I’m Totally Fine” (which takes place in various parts of the U.S., but you can tell that the movie was filmed in a limited part of California) is essentially about how a 36-year-old business entrepreneur named Vanessa (played by Jillian Bell) reacts when she finds out that an outer space alien (played by Natalie Morales) has shapeshifted into appearing as her dead best friend Jennifer Martinez, who has died less than a week ago. (It’s mentioned in the movie that Jennifer has not been buried yet.) The alien tells Vanessa that the alien has taken on a human form so that the alien can learn more about what it feels like to be human.

Vanessa and Jennifer co-founded a start-up company that makes organic soda drinks. They had just landed a distribution deal to have the soda sold in stores nationwide. And then, Jennifer died. (Her cause of death is not mentioned in the movie.) Vanessa has traveled alone by car to spend some time by herself to grieve at the house where Jennifer and Vanessa had planned to hold a celebration party because of the distribution deal.

Vanessa is surprised when employees of the event planning company that was hired for the party show up at the house to set up the party. There’s some haggling back and forth, because Jennifer was the one who signed the contract with this event planning company. The party planner in charge is named Susan (played by Karen Maruyama), and she informs Vanessa that Jennifer was legally the only one who could cancel the contract, if she did so with at least 24 hours notice. But, of course, Jennifer is dead, and there’s some arguing over whether or not Vanessa can cancel the contract. She can’t cancel, so the party is set up anyway.

It’s just an excuse for the movie to show grieving Vanessa alone at the house with plenty of alcohol. She gets drunk, of course. And so, when Vanessa sees the alien who looks exactly like Jennifer, the first reaction from Vanessa is to think that it’s just a drunken hallucination. But the next day, a hungover Vanessa again sees the Jennifer look-alike alien, who calmly hands Vanessa a cup of coffee. And this time, Vanessa thinks she’s having some kind of mental breakdown.

The alien tells in a robotic voice: “I know this is an odd encounter. My appearance resembles your perished companion. Unfortunately, Jennifer continues and will continue to be deceased. I am simply an extraterrestrial who has taken her form.” The space alien also calls itself a “species observation officer” who mission is to observe how humans live and how resilient they are.

The Jennifer look-alike alien expects Vanessa to give her a crash course on being human in “orientation sessions.” Vanessa finds out that this alien has some unusual quirks: The alien gets easily dehydrated by the sun, so the alien guzzles olive oil to keep hydrated.

The alien also says that its native planet consists of lightning, and the beings from this planet need a certain energy source: “We absorb the battery life of anything around us that has a battery life. We also absorb heat.” You can easily predict what happens to Vanessa’s cell phone when she needs it, or what happens when Vanessa and the alien decide to go on a road trip together in Vanessa’s car when they’re on a deserted road.

Expect to see a lot of “odd couple” clichés with grumpy and jaded Vanessa and the upbeat and naïve Jennifer look-alike alien. The movie has a small number of people in the cast, so most of the screen time is focused on these two characters. Vanessa has a musician boyfriend named Eric (played by Blake Anderson), who is concerned about Vanessa’s well-being and checks in with her occasionally by phone. During the road trip, the two travelers encounter an unnamed scruffy weirdo (played by Kyle Newacheck), who does what unnamed scruffy weirdos do in “trying too hard to be cool” movies like “I’m Totally Fine.”

There’s also some time-wasting nonsense about Vanessa, Jennifer and Jennifer’s younger sister Megan (voiced by Cyrina Fiallo, in a phone conversation) being fans of the rock band Papa Roach when they were teenagers. Vanessa gets jealous because she finds out all these years later that Megan and Jennifer went to see Papa Roach in concert for the first time, one year before Jennifer and Vanessa saw the band in concert. Jennifer had lied to Vanessa and told her that the Papa Roach concert that Jennifer went to with Vanessa was Jennifer’s first Papa Roach concert experience.

Vanessa gets so upset about this lie, it makes viewers think that even though Vanessa is 36, she has the emotional maturity of someone who’s 16. The movie runs this dull Papa Roach subplot into the ground. It should come as no surprise when a flamboyant party DJ named DJ Twisted Bristle (played by Harvey Guillén) shows up at the house, Papa Roach’s 2000 song “Last Resort” (the band’s breakthrough hit) is played, so Vanessa can teach the alien how to let loose at a party. Yes, this scene really is as stupid as it sounds. There’s some predictable drinking and drugging in this scene too.

Bell’s portrayal of Vanessa goes back and forth between trying to look like a grief-stricken person who’s rude and impatient to someone who’s whiny, spoiled brat who needs an alien to teach her how to get in touch with her sensitive side again. There are a few moments of juvenile-minded comedy that might give viewers some mild laughs, in the way that people might laugh at outdated jokes. Morales’ space alien performance is a weak imitation of the Coneheads. It quickly gets tiresome.

“I’m Totally Fine” wasted an opportunity to make the story concept into an amusing and edgy film. Instead, the movie is filled with idiotic scenarios and lackluster dialogue. For example, at one point in the movie, Vanessa says, “I am a strong, powerful woman, and I am perfectly capable of handling my mental breakdown,” as if it’s supposed to be a clever comedic moment.

“I’m Totally Fine” forces in some tearjearker scenes in the film’s last 15 minutes. It’s just a cheap ploy to make the movie look like it’s trying to convey “meaningful messages about life and humanity.” But by then, it’s too late, because this contrived human-alien friendship is as fake as an alien shapeshifter’s body disguise.

Decal released “I’m Totally Fine” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on November 4, 2022.

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