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Witless 'Deck' is holiday dreck

The best that can be hoped for with a movie like "Deck the Halls" is that it might be a funny "Christmas w ith the Kranks" -- a painless, amusing seasonal diversion. Tough luck: It's possibly even worse. How come the talk-radio blowhards never bring movies like this up when they're inveighing against the War on Christmas?

The saddest part is that "Deck" wastes four comic talents ranging from the near-genius (Matthew Broderick, Danny DeVito) to the inspired (Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth ) to the charming (Kristin Davis of "Sex and the City"). The quartet is stuck in a suburban dopey-dads-and-savvy-moms holiday vehicle that appears to have been assembled from the spare parts of failed sitcom pilots.

Broderick is uptight Steve Finch, an optometrist in the fictional small town of Cloverdale, Mass. DeVito is lowdown Buddy Hall, the car salesman who has just moved in across the street. Davis and Chenoweth are their better halves, respectfully dewy and brassy. There are children, too, but I'll save the actors the embarrassment of identifying them (except for the hubba-hubba teenage twins played by Kelly and Sabrina Aldridge of the MTV reality-model show "8th & Ocean"; between the two, they have half a decent career ahead of them).

Steve is a control freak who has his seasonal activities mapped out from Dec. 1 onward ; he's the town "Christmas guy" who venerates tradition and shrinks from the tacky. Buddy, of course, is tackiness incarnate: He wants his house so covered with lights that it can be seen from outer space. Literally. The film's jaundiced gag is that the townsfolk love Buddy's 5,000-watt schlock -- the cars are backed up for blocks -- and this prompts his rival to break out the heavy artillery.

Broderick and DeVito were made for this sort of tit-for-tat odd-couple comedy: the former's serenely retentive, the latter's joyfully expulsive. The script by Matt Corman, Chris Ord, and Don Rhymer hems them in with witless cookie-cutter dialogue and stale situations, though: Christmas trees caught on fire, runaway sleighs, old ladies catching a snowball in the chops. When Buddy brings on a live camel for a creche, you can tick off the minutes before Steve ends up slimed with dung.

John Whitesell doesn't so much direct as manage traffic, and "Deck the Halls" never builds the snappy momentum needed for even B-grade farce. Like "Kranks," this is just one more complacent, sold-out Christmas product, a thin layer of Hallmark sentimentality surrounding a cynical core.

The great holiday films, like "A Christmas Story" or the original "A Miracle on 34th Street," do exactly the opposite: They melt doubt with earned emotion and slowly work their way from the specific to the timeless. The last thing we see in "Deck the Halls," by contrast, is the good townspeople of Cloverdale lighting up the season with their cellphones.

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