Ho ho hobos! You know, for Christmas.

A lot of people would expect a story about a man who’s abandoned his family and become a hobo to be kind of a bummer.

It sucks for everyone, you know?

Mom has to get a paying job for the first time ever, Junior becomes a latchkey kid.  Nobody really gives a care about Dad anymore, but unless the myth of the wealthy beggar is true, he’s looking at a lifetime of sleeping in doorways, jockeying for position in overcrowded homeless shelters, dumpster-diving, bottle-picking, panhandling, run-ins with the law, and a truly remarkable accumulation of personal filth.

And that’s if he’s lucky enough to avoid an addiction of some kind.  That’s if he’s not also sick, or disabled, or crazy.

I have seen the light though, my friends.  I have seen that it is possible to be healthy, happy and homeless, all at the same time.  I have seen that homelessness can be a rich and fulfilling landscape of friendship, travel and adventure, a desirable romp on a par with backpacking across Europe.

I have seen… A Hobo’s Christmas.

That cover is a fucking disgrace, by the way.  There’s no shiny train, no wolf, no mountains, and when there’s a Santa, it’s a different fucking guy.  Also, Gerald McRaney (TV’s Major Dad) is the star, not pictured, and neither is his other kid from the movie.  Also it was very obviously shot in, like, July.  The only snow that covers your whole window as happens with most of them in this movie comes out of a goddamn can.

Made in 1987, it’s a bizarrely wholesome movie of the week in which there is a thriving community of transient labourers still ridin’ the rails like some men did during the Great Depression, eating beans out of a can, playing harmonica, and stinking up the joint with their folksy wisdom.

Barnard Hughes plays the hilariously named Chance, an old man who lost his job as a traveling salesman 25 years ago and thought his wife and son would be happier getting a Fotomat snapshot and eleven cents in the mail every once in a while than having him safe at home with them, but unemployed for a short period of time.

Gerald McRaney plays his son, Charlie, all growed up now and raising two children of his own in Salt Lake City, where he’s only taken a job as a police officer because his job at the steel mill didn’t work out.

(Nobody is playing either man’s wife.  Bitches ain’t shit, dawg, not even at Christmas.)

Now an old man, Chance has finally succumbed to sentimentality.  His days are numbered, and he’s never met his grandchildren, never explained himself to his son…

Never tried to shoehorn himself into someone’s life after 25 years of rampant neglect, lashing out angrily when he’s not welcomed back.

Yes, that’s right: while Chance is clearly meant to be the stereotypical broken old man who’s looking back on his life and numbering his regrets, mostly what he is in this movie is kind of a major douche.

Everywhere he goes, people react negatively to his appearance, because he’s filthy or dressed in hobo gear or cooking a meal for children in a steel garbage can, but each time this happens, he gets all huffy, lecturing people and giving them the stinkeye as if it’s completely unreasonable to think a homeless man might be kind of a bad bet.

(Nothing against homeless people, mind you.  People are people, and generally homeless people are disadvantaged in more ways than one, so they’re more deserving of compassion, not less.  But you know what I mean, right?  Everybody’s got a Homeless Guy Story.  The scary transients are in the minority, but they’re… memorable.)

For the whole movie, this Chance dink shambles around trying to look needy and pathetic at the same time that he censures his son for having the gall to hold a grudge against the man who abandoned him, neglected him, turned him into the fearful, dutiful, moist-eyed boulder he is today.

And the thing of it is, Chance never tries to play it off like there’s some big sob story behind what he did, or try to brazen it out.  Instead, he comes off like he thinks his explanation makes any sense at all.

In his eyes, staying home meant giving up his position as the breadwinner FOREVAR.  I guess Charlie grew up in the Strippers and Schoolmarms Capital of America, from which one can check out, but never leave.

This movie has layers, y’all.

What with one thing and another, there are certain things you can expect: Charlie’s girlfriend doesn’t take The Job in California, abandoning him to his fate as a smoldering, mustachioed sexpot who thinks working swing shifts on an assembly line is a sweeter deal than cruising around town in a police car running errands all day; his father sticks around, taking a chance on family life; both children receive their impractical, improbably expensive wish list gifts.

But there are a few surprises, as well.

I mean, for one thing, I don’t even know where my slash goggles are right now, yet I remain convinced that Chance is having a wild affair with his hobo BFF, Cincinnati Harold, whose entire role is to scorn him for wanting to reconnect with his family, and beg him not to leave.  They have amazing chemistry, amazing intensity that (for me) informs all their scenes.

For another… look, like I say, dude is a dodgy-looking old hobo and deadbeat dad with a personality disorder.  Yet Charlie takes him in without question, leaves him alone with the kids straight away, and barely even blinks when he brings all his hobo pals over for Christmas dinner as a gift to Charlie.

You know what’s a gift, Chance?  Flushing the toilet when you’re done with it.  Do you think you could pass that on to Punxatawney Phil or whatever the fuck that guy’s name is who’s over there scraping the tin off those gum wrappers?

Dag, yo.  This movie is mental.  I mean to tell you that I find it less believable than the one where Olivia Newton-John is an enchanted mannequin who’s spent decades yearning for the opportunity to raise another woman’s asshole spawn as her own.

Probably my favourite part is when Charlie’s in his woodworking man cave and he’s just been lectured about throwing Chance to the wolves.  He snarls “Damn it,” and shoves his gun in his waistband, and just for a second, you think he’s going to shoot that worthless, narcissistic old man and toss his corpse into the canal.


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Melodie Ladner lives and works in the Greater Vancouver area, and is probably eating something unhealthful out of a bag at this very moment.

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18 Responses to “Ho ho hobos! You know, for Christmas.”

  1. kormantic says:

    I’ve learned something today, about family. And homelessness. And carrying a gun.

    • Melodie says:

      The first time I saw this movie, it was on TV on Christmas Day. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I thought I’d maybe gone insane.

      He really does make Hobo Stew in a steel garbage can. He cooks it with the kids on Charlie’s front lawn. And serves it to Charlie without telling him how he made it till it’s too late.

      And Charlie still eats it, Joe Daqn.


  2. Nate says:

    And the…
    Then he…
    Trashcan stew…
    Shoot his dad…

    Just the review of this movie broke my brain. I can’t imagine what actually watching it would do to me.

    Now I gotta see it.

    • Melodie says:

      I can’t get over that Random Santa on the poster. I’ve tried and tried! There’s almost no Santa in the movie anyway, and when there is, he’s played by Chance.

      • kormantic says:

        He probably cleaned the trashcan first! With tobacky spittle and a filthy rag!

        • Melodie says:

          In fairness, it is a sparklin’ clean trashcan, at least on the outside.

          But then you figure he must have bought it special, and you have to ask yourself why he didn’t just use a GD crockpot.

          So then you figure the kids asked him that, and he said something like “It don’t taste the same less’n it’s been a-simmerin’ in good old-fashioned ‘murrican steel!”

          And then you realize it’s probably the first time he’s ever made the stew in a clean trashcan, in his life.

          So then you wonder if the various scums and mystery fluids stuck to the trashcans of stews past contributed to its unique flavour, and if their lack will be noticeable in this latest batch.

          Layers. I told you.

  3. Liz says:

    I like how Bernard Hughes’ name is over Wendy Crewson in the top most picture. Damn, Bernard was sure puuurdy back in the day.

    So dude is actually almost about to make out with (or vomit on, whichever) HIS DAD.

  4. kelly says:

    I think I just hurt myself, reading this. Rick Simon, where have you gone? Come back, Rick Simon, come on home.

  5. matt says:

    Watched the original Tron over the weekend, and TOTALLY recognized Barnard Hughes from the icon to this post. Festive Hobo and grizzled computer programmer/blue glowy program with bizarre hat. Dude has RANGE.

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