Drake & Josh: Take 'em or leave 'em

TELEVISION CRITIC

By any adult standard of film art, "Merry Christmas, Drake & Josh," which premieres tonight on Nickelodeon, is not a good movie. Still, it should energize the base.

In "Drake & Josh," the popular sitcom of which this is a posthumous echo, Drake Bell and Josh Peck played stepbrothers whose close quarters and clashing natures engendered a mutually irritated affection; Drake's evil little sister, Miranda Cosgrove, is now the star of "iCarly." The pair may be pushing toward the far edge of tween idolatry -- at 22, they are undeniably adults -- but they are still in the game. At this year's Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards, only Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers inspired greater hysteria, and the network still has use for them -- indeed, another movie, "Drake & Josh in New York!," is in the works. For the time being, they continue to serve as a kind of Hope & Crosby for the "Who are Hope & Crosby?" set, crooner Bell as girl-magnet Bing and goofball Peck as put-upon Bob.

The present adventure finds them on the road to Christmas. There is absolutely no relation between what happens in this movie and how things work in the real world. It's the sort of script in which the writers -- including Dan Schneider, who created "Drake & Josh," "Zoey 101" and "The Amanda Show" -- will pull any rabbit out of any handy hat to get a character from point A to point B. And while that heedlessness may work for a hectic, half-hour sitcom, it's less productive, if not disruptive, when you're trying to tell a story with an emotional point that has to sustain itself across the length of a movie.

In this one, Drake, down at the mall, suited as Santa and on the run from a Fat Girl Who Wants to Kiss Him -- so sad, really, the chased-by-a-fat-girl joke -- encounters a little girl (Bailee Madison) who makes him swear he'll provide her family the best Christmas ever. It turns out she's one of six foster kids whose foster mother is in the hospital and whose foster father has suggested it may be a leaner than usual Christmas. (Welcome to 2008, honey.) Foster father gets one brief scene in the movie and disappears, but only because parents are removable accessories in tween entertainments -- tweentainments? In "Merry Christmas," Drake's and Josh's own are packed off to a disastrous island holiday, where they are intermittently seen to be having a terrible time.

I'll just add here that the necessity of providing the foster kids with the best Christmas ever is further driven and complicated by: (1) the agreed-upon fact that "You can't break a Christmas promise"; (2) a court order; and (3) the desire of an evil "parole officer" to stop it from happening.

Even though they're the point of the show, the Christmas elements seem tacked on. The Drake & Josh aesthetic is not friendly to sentiment -- imagine a Very Special Episode of, say, "Gilligan's Island" and you see the trouble. The holiday spirit has to compete with lobster-stuck-to-crotch and chimp urine jokes, but a joke about GPS bought over the Internet for $6 that gives directions only at the last minute -- "in 5 feet turn left" -- made me laugh every time they pulled it.

Most of the main cast members of the sitcom are here, doing what they did then, but a year older. Cosgrove, as stepsister Megan, is cruel to Josh; movie theater boss Helen (Yvette Nicole Brown) is cruel to Josh. Crazy Steve (Jerry Trainor) is crazy. Henry Winkler guests as a judge in a fairly funny scene, and martial arts star Kimbo Slice is rather good as a scary-not-really prison inmate whose anger Josh calms by pulling a quarter from his ear.

But it all comes down to the stars being who they are, take them or leave them: Bell, who writes and sings catchy teen-pop in his grown-up life, performs an energetic "Jingle Bells." Peck, who used to be heavy, is now "defatified" with straightened hair and is basically a babe, which means that the social awkwardness his body used to represent must now come from within. Much of the time it takes the form of a kind of falsetto sobbing, which is wearing. But his strangeness can also be lovely, as when, knocking on a door, he says, to no particular purpose, that he loves the sound glass makes when you knock on it.

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'Merry Christmas, Drake & Josh'

Where: Nickelodeon

When: 8 tonight

Rating: Not rated

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