When my husband and I began dating, we bonded over many things -– action movies from the 1980s, “The Crocodile Hunter,” the early music of Coldplay. Then one fateful night, he dug out his family’s well-worn VHS copy of “Mixed Nuts,” an underrated gem of a Christmas comedy that has since become part of our holiday tradition.
In our house, the annual viewing of “Mixed Nuts” often trumps such perennial favorites as “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Love Actually,” “A Christmas Story” and “Elf,” and we have treated many friends and family members to the eccentric delights of this little seen yuletide treat. (OK, so maybe forced it upon them is a more accurate way of putting it.)
Based on a French play, “Mixed Nuts” premiered in theaters in 1994 and was largely ignored, judging by the measly $6 million it has grossed over its lifetime. That’s a sad statistic, considering how entertaining, unusual and addictive the film is. Here are five reasons to make it part of your own holiday tradition.
1. It’s one of the few films you haven’t seen by late, great writer-director Nora Ephron.
“Mixed Nuts” is no “When Harry Met Sally,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “You’ve Got Mail” or “Julie and Julia,” but this early work — one of only eight movies Ephron directed — bears strong traces of the romantic comedy queen’s wit, relationship insights and sweet and zany sentimentality. The plot of the film revolves around a nonprofit suicide hotline, fertile ground for dark humor in a script Ephron co-wrote with her sister, Delia.
Makeshift telephone helpline Life Savers is haplessly run by Philip (Steve Martin), a misguided do-gooder who is having the worst Christmas Eve ever. His landlord (Gary Shandling) hands him an eviction notice, a development Philip tries to hide from his stressed-out staff. Then his loan officer girlfriend (Joely Fisher) dumps him for a psychiatrist. That’s just the beginning of the pre-Christmas chaos as prank callers, unauthorized visitors, a roaming serial killer, an elevator malfunction and a lovers’ quarrel conspire to ruin Philip’s holiday.
2. “Mixed Nuts” is the rare film that captures the essence of Christmas in Southern California.
Ah, Christmas in SoCal, where the only snowmen you’re likely to see are made of sand and the incessant sunshine provides an incongruous backdrop to yuletide greenery and songs extolling the joys of sleigh rides. “Mixed Nuts” is set in Venice Beach, that magical boardwalk of bodybuilders, bongs and panhandling bohemians. The opening credits, which pan over the sun-drenched surf and strange sights of Venice to the sounds of “White Christmas,” are thick with an irony only SoCal natives can fully appreciate.
3. The film boasts an amusing, neurotic, highly physical performance by Martin, but it’s Rita Wilson and Madeline Kahn who steal the show.
Martin may be the star of “Mixed Nuts,” but he plays angst-ridden straight man to an ensemble of hilariously over-the-top characters. His Philip has good intentions and no people skills, which can be a problem when your livelihood involves talking despairing strangers off ledges. As great as Martin is, he’s thoroughly upstaged by Wilson as Catherine, a co-worker with a crush on Philip and a perpetually optimistic outlook that is beginning to crumble. Then there is the sublimely funny Kahn as Mrs. Munchnik, a cranky widow always armed with a tart comeback. To watch these two in fine form is to lament that we didn’t get to enjoy more performances by the late Kahn and that Wilson is recognized for her real-life role as Tom Hanks’ wife rather than her acting ability.
4. Like a Christmas stocking, “Mixed Nuts” is stuffed with surprises.
Those surprises come mostly in the form of unexpected cameos by awesome comedians. Among the familiar faces are a young Adam Sandler as a ukulele-strumming writer of T-shirt slogans, Parker Posey and Jon Stewart as a pair of angry rollerbladers, Rob Reiner as a lovelorn veterinarian, Anthony LaPaglia as an ex-con who spends most of the film running around in a Santa Claus suit, Juliet Lewis as an unlikely Virgin Mary figure and the aforementioned Shandling as Philip’s Grinchy landlord. Keep a sharp eye out for “The Sixth Sense” star Haley Joel Osment in a brief, early movie appearance.
5. You’ve never seen Liev Schreiber quite like this.
You may know Schreiber from the hard-boiled Showtime series “Ray Donovan” or his “serious” work in films such as “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “Defiance” or “The Manchurian Candidate,” but you haven’t seen him as he appears in “Mixed Nuts.” In his very first feature film outing, Schreiber squeezes his strapping frame into knee-high boots, a sleek black wig and an evening cape to play the transsexual Chris, a lonely soul seeking companionship at Life Savers headquarters, despite Philip’s protestations that it’s against company policy. Schreiber reveals himself to be a deft physical comedian, dueting with Martin in a hilarious ballroom dance routine that rivals the finales of “Dirty Dancing” and “Silver Linings Playbook.” The producers of “Ray Donovan” should really find an excuse to get him in drag once again.