I've seen six Abel Ferrara films now, including this one, and the appeal of this guy's work continues to elude me. Obviously 'R Xmas (which was never released theatrically in the U.S.) isn't one of his most highly acclaimed films, but it still gets plenty of praise from critics who love Ferrara's work (IMDb says it was named one of the 10 best films of 2001 by Cahiers du Cinema). Yet it's an arbitrary, shapeless mess, with stilted acting, bad pseudo-tough dialogue and an almost complete indifference to plot, character and shooting style. The prolific Ferrara may have tossed this one off over a weekend for all I know, but even if he didn't, it certainly plays like he did. There's a difference between unhurried naturalism and narrative incompetence, and this movie definitely falls in the latter category.
But is it much of a Christmas movie? Surprisingly, yes. I wasn't entirely sure about including it in this project, but Ferrara actually makes an effort to tell a sort of warped version of A Christmas Carol in the story of a drug dealer (Lillo Brancato Jr., terrible) who gets kidnapped on Christmas Eve by a mysterious group of thugs and their strangely moralistic leader (Ice-T, even worse). The leader demands that the dealer's wife (Drea de Matteo, passable) not only hand over the couple's money and drug stash to get her husband back, but also promise that he will give up dealing drugs entirely. The movie's ending questions whether that will really happen, but on Christmas morning, with the couple's young daughter obliviously opening presents, the two seem nearly as changed as Scrooge himself.
Ferrara also opens with a scene from A Christmas Carol enacted by children, later pulling back to reveal that it's a school play featuring the main couple's daughter. And he juxtaposes scenes of holiday merriment with the depiction of the packaging and sorting of drugs. The couple uses their underworld wealth and connections to procure a hard-to-find toy for their daughter. All of these elements point to some kind of message about the holiday season, but like everything else about the movie, they're mostly vague and inscrutable. The kidnapping, which is the main hook if you believe the DVD description, doesn't even happen until halfway through the movie, and third-billed Ice-T has maybe 15 minutes of screen time.
Ferrara also seems to want to say something about the evolution of New York City; the movie takes place in 1993, and an opening title card notes that David Dinkins was at the time finishing up his one term as mayor. The movie ends with another title card noting Rudy Giuliani's pending election, and promises "To be cont." So maybe there's a sequel or sequels that Ferrara never got to make that would explain the scenes of near-unintelligible dialogue, the unidentified characters, the abrupt ending, anything. As it stands, though, this movie is a haphazard jumble of gangster machismo and ponderous navel-gazing, just like pretty much every other Ferrara movie I've seen.
The True Meaning of Christmas: Stop selling drugs.