Much of the pre-release promotion for the 2000 version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas focused on the extraordinary (and, eventually, Oscar-winning) make-up work it took to get Jim Carrey entombed in the flexible latex mask that allowed him to play Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel's beloved Christmas-hating misanthrope. And, in particular, on how it was so phenomenally unpleasant (especially the bright yellow contact lenses, apparently), that the actor needed to consult with a CIA expert on resisting torture just to endure the daily process of having it applied. I wonder if that was maybe, in some small way, the studio's attempt to cushion the film's impact on the audience. By focusing on the severity of Carrey's discomfort, it's almost like the marketing department was quietly assuring us that, contrary to all the evidence, somebody suffered more in making the film than the viewer suffers in watching it.

Holy motherfucking shit, this is a bad movie. I was willing to leave myself open to the possibility that I was being at least slightly uncharitable some years ago when I declared it to be one of the worst films of the 2000s, but if anything I was being generous: "Ron Howard, for all his banality, is much too good a director to make an incompetent movie", I said back in 2010, but begad, if How the Grinch Stole Christmas isn't as-such "incompetent", it's sure as hell looking incompetence straight in the eye. There are way too many wobbly, drunken canted angles and overly-fast pans for me to dare think of calling this "competent" and being done with it.

Not to mention the film's fundamentally broken screenplay, by Jeffery Price & Peter S. Seaman. The 1957 picture book has fewer than 1400 words in it, and even the 1966 animated TV adaptation that includes nearly every one of those words had to both recite them slowly and include multiple songs to get the thing up to 26 minutes. The 2000 movie is 104 minutes, and to achieve that, it's added over an hour of entirely new material not even briefly imagined in Dr. Seuss's book. Indeed, given the book's line (also said aloud in this film) "No one quite knows the reason" as a summary of its anti-hero's backstory, we might say that the new material directly contradicts Dr. Seuss's book, and it directly contradicts itself as well. For that's the hell of it; despite the amount of effort it took to put together a pitch that Audrey Geisel, the author's widow, found acceptable, the script is a complete wreck. The two parts of the film don't cohere at all, providing entirely incompatible character motivations, philosophical themes, and basic concept of how the world works.

Both of the story's original incarnations take the form of a fable: angry old asshole who lives up the side of a mountain and hates all the noise, noise, noise, NOISE of Christmas tries to ruin it for everybody, and discovers instead that his neighbors are singing and celebrating not because they love presents and shit, but because they love having one day a year where they are obliged to remember that it is better to be kind and giving and a member of a community. Thus does his heart grow three sizes, and all that. It is a merry sign of how profoundly Price & Seaman have willfuly missed the point that their Grinch completely abandons the generosity of Seuss's original in favor of a story of how the Christmas-loving Whos are pretty much all a bunch of shrill assholes. In this film, Whoville is something like a year-round Christmas cult, overseen by the bullying Mayor Augustus Maywho (Jeffrey Tambor), and treated as an enormous orgy of materialist pleasure by the Who community. As we will learn soon enough, the Grinch didn't move 3000 feet up Mount Crumpit because he's just a sullen crank, but because he was mocked and humiliated during his childhood in Whoville, and his hatred of Christmas has the very specific reason that he despises Maywho for stealing the heart of Martha May Whovier (Christine Baranski), the Grinch's childhood crush. It falls to little Cindy Lou Who (Taylor Momsen), the only Who with even a glimmer of discomfort at all of this gaudy commercialism, to coax the Grinch out of his defensive shell of self-loathing, and also to topple the mayor's tacky regime.

This leaves basically nothing of the original Seuss, of course, and I'm not really sure what, if anything, it replaces it with. The secularised Christian warmth of a community bound by love and camaraderie is the very meat and potatoes of Christmas cinema and Grinch 2000 has nothing to offer by insane cynicism, almost as smug as it is hypocritical: the film presents the conspicuous consumption of the Whos as something fundamentally deranged and monstrous, yet it also engages in the most crassly commercial filmmaking that the turn of the millennium had on offer. It is a fundamentally soulless, mercenary attack on soulless, mercenary things, and this ends up being deeply tedious and tiresome to watch, on pretty much every possible level. There's the script, with its mechanical character arcs that all collapse at the two-thirds mark, when the film's dismal "misunderstood outsider" boilerplate has to find some way to navigate the turn into Seuss's Christmas Carol riff; it resolutely does not find this. There's the comedy, which is loud and tepidly gross, indebted to the motor-mouthed shouting that had been Carrey's shtick for all of the decade prior. It was annoying enough before he made an abrupt but rather successful swerve into Serious Acting with 1998's The Truman Show and 1999's Man on the Moon; for him to jump back into the bellowing quasi-accents and whirlwind gesticulations of his big, irritating comedies is a most dispiriting thing, in the wake of those successes. It's also a problem that the film has such a Carrey-oriented sense of humor: yelling, angry sarcasm and cheap scatology. Herein, we have a Seuss adaptation in which the Grinch dangles mistletoe over his rear end in the most explicit "kiss my ass" joke you could possibly make in a film angling to retain a family-friendly rating, and that's not even the film's most egregious ass-kissing joke (the Grinch will later press his dog Max's rectum right atop Maywho's sleeping face. Max has a comic, CGI-sweetened reaction to this).

The braying, enraged comedy might work with a defter directorial hand or a better-built screenplay, but Price & Seaman haven't provided the latter, and Ron Howard is lightyears away from providing the former in this, the worst film of a directorial career that mostly resides at the level of unenjoyably adequate mediocrity. It's really quite inexplicable how terribly-directed the film is - that Carrey would cut loose and indulge himself in various manias is of course predictable, but Howard has apparently encouraged all of the rest of the cast to follow suit, meaning big, loud, shouty performances from everybody, starting with a never-worse hambone Tambor, going all the way down to the ordinarily soft and sweet Bill Irwin (in, I believe, his first really major film role).

But as bad as the comic performances are, the visuals are so much worse. The production design, by Michael Corenblith, unwisely attempts to transform Seuss's illustrations, with their rejection of straight lines, into physical structures, and the results almost look interesting. They at least look very, very elaborate and spectacular. The downside is that the sets' color schemes reside in a grotesque array of greyed-out reds and greens and whites, aided not at all by Donald Peterman's inexplicably dark, grainy cinematography. Which is to say: it's somehow both garish and desaturated, a profoundly ugly film even before Howard applies the most god-damnedest camera angles. The film is thoroughly besotted with canted angles, enough to make The Third Man look realistic and Battlefield Earth look tasteful; it also uses whip pans and other fast, swooping camera movements without the slightest restraint. I'm not sure if the motivation is to accentuate the flowing lines and lack of straight angles in the production design, creating an overall feeling of zany visual possibility; or maybe it's trying to render Whoville as a Boschian hellscape of instablity and chaos, a world so addicted to trashy visual excess that it breaks down perspective itself. In neither case is it a natural fit for a resolutely plain artist like Howard, and it never feels anything but forced and confused. I might go so call as to call the aesthetic "calculated", except the calculations are all wrong and the figures are all off.

The film's visual ugliness and its thematic emptiness are a perfect fit: they leave behind a film which has nothing to offer except the grotesque. But the grotesque presented in a banal, middlebrow way. I get that for a decent slice of humans old enough to hold positions of economic and political power, the 2000 How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a holiday classic. It is, even, the definitive version of the story. And my misgivings aside, that's... actually, that's really fucking horrifying.