America got a new dad in 1991 when Home Improvement debuted on ABC. Tim Allen, formerly a rising stand-up comic, starred as Tim “the Toolman” Taylor, host of a sponsored cable TV show. Prior to the series, Allen’s comedy schtick was all about guy stuff, and the show pushed that further, developing Allen as a broad everyman who imagines himself as a competent jack of all trades, but is actually almost destructively inept.
Allen has played a version of that role in the decades since – his lane is solidly “wisecracking overconfident guy,” whether the character’s fortunes are on the rise or not – and it takes an unexpected new turn in El Camino Christmas, now streaming on Netflix.
El Camino Christmas is a different sort of holiday movie. It comes from Hidden Figures writer/director/producer Ted Melfi, and taps into the darker side of Tim Allen’s personality. It watches as a bunch of characters collide in on Christmas Eve in a way that makes whatever holiday nightmare most people have experienced seem like the greatest Christmas ever.
The story begins with Eric (Luke Grimes), a young man scouring a dusty Nevada town for signs of his absent father. He has some problems with local law enforcement – some of which have nothing to do with Eric, and some that he might have been able to avoid – and before too long Eric is holed up in a convenience store with a couple guns and a few locals, including Allen’s character Larry as cops mass outside.
In the same way the movie isn't a typical Christmas movie, with currents of violence and dark humor running through it, Allen's character veers away from his “jocular dad” image. He's got big problems, and before he can solve them, or even begin to, he makes big problems for people around him. Initially this role seems to have virtually no connection to Allen's past parts, but as we see more of him, the ties between Allen's present and past work become apparent.
Allen’s major roles on TV and in film has laid the groundwork for this character. Larry looks like the sort of “regular man's man” Allen has played in movies and TV before. He's not a family guy at all – he drinks too much, avoids his problems, jokes to avoid serious talk, and generally rebuffs attempts at connection. But Larry ultimately has some of the same characteristics of Allen's more famous Tim "the Toolman" Taylor. He still thinks he can fix anything, but his tools are booze and isolation rather than a hammer and pliers.
Zoom out a bit and we can see analogous, if far more sober ideas, in the adventurous overconfidence of Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story, or the guy who finds himself committed to a new life as the ad exec at the center of the Santa Clause films.
Looking at Allen's career as a whole, we see that his evolution is less about expanding into new places than refining his approach to a core idea. In one early interview he said "I can only play a part if I can draw on personal experience," and that personal experience pretty clearly seems to be of a well-meaning guy who tries to use confidence to compensate for what he doesn't know.
Contrary to Allen’s most recent TV work on Last Man Standing, his El Camino Christmas role plays like an admission that some of the attitudes from his older characters are no longer enough. The “man's man” attitude doesn't go as far as it used to. He's a guy who needs help. The character may be drunk, and grumpy and mean, but the role itself represents growth for Allen.
Just as Home Improvement storylines and films like Toy Story regularly gave Allen’s character a chance to redeem his excesses, El Camino Christmas gives Larry a shot at redemption. The movie’s centerpiece is Tim Allen's monologue, a moment in which he finally opens up about the difficulties in his own past. While he doesn’t address some of the film’s problems, and some of his own, head-on, the confessional does give the character a future.
His vulnerability connects Allen’s character to the holiday spirit that is elusive for most of the residents of El Camino, Nevada – and which, to be fair, the guy spends most of his time stamping out. Look at him like a small town Scrooge, protecting his tattered self-image instead of a financial fortune. There are no literal ghosts here to spur him into action, but the ghosts of his past play into his choices for the future. The film develops the idea that holiday spirit is about realizing how we affect the people around us.
Superficially, this movie looks like a huge departure for Allen. In some ways, yes, El Camino Christmas is inarguably different from what audiences expect for him – this guy is a lot more mean, for example, than prior roles – but there’s also a solid thread connecting it to the persona he's cultivated over three decades.
El Camino Christmas is streaming now on Netflix.