One Christmas treat, one lump of coal

Saturday, November 29, 2003

Don't be too quick to dismiss the original cable drama "Stealing Christmas" (7 p.m. Sunday, USA). Sure, it has Tony Danza in a Santa suit, Lea Thompson as a spunky if exasperated mom, and a story about a small town rediscovering the lost meaning of Christmas. Yup, those are usually all of the ingredients you need for forgettable mush, but somehow the movie manages to hang together.

Much of the credit goes to Danza, who turns in a strong and believable performance as Jack Clayton, an incorrigible burglar who escapes a botched department store heist wearing a stolen Santa suit belonging to a guy named Oscar. Clayton takes Oscar's wallet and identity and grabs the first bus out of Chicago. It takes him to the sleepy burg of Evergreen, where Sarah (Thompson), the overwrought manager of a Christmas tree farm, assumes that he's the Santa she hired from an agency.

Desperate to lay low, "Oscar" takes the job and becomes one of the grumpiest and most straight-talking Santas in history. But the kids and adults of Evergreen take to the sardonic St. Nick, and soon he's attending chamber of commerce meetings, exhorting the town's folks to take on the mega-malls, and spruce the place up for the holidays. Little do they know that his civic-mindedness masks a more sinister motive: He wants business to boom so the local bank is filled with cash when he knocks it over on Christmas Eve.

Will Clayton/Oscar/Santa stick to his nefarious plan? Or will his heart be melted by the spirit of the holidays? And will Sarah's hard heart soften? I'll never tell. But "Stealing Christmas" does a good job of keeping you guessing until the very end.

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