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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Fred Claus

It was almost a year ago, while watching The Nativity Story at the Essex Cinemas, that I first saw the teaser trailer for Fred Claus. Nothing will make an audience watching a Christmas film groan louder than seeing a preview advertising a movie for the same holiday a year in advance, but, for this viewer, it made my heart skip a beat if only because the title alone included the wonderful word “Fred.”

I’ve always fantasized that one day that famous suck-up to the stars, James “Never call me Jimmy” Lipton, of “Inside the Actor’s Studio” fame would have me as his guest, plopped on-stage in front of his captive audience of acting students while he pummels me with that inevitable questionnaire by his idol Bernard Piveau with which he interrogates each guest before they may leave. First up, of course is the obvious: “What’s your favorite word?” to which I would respond, as I have said, with “Fred” and he would follow up with “What is your least favorite word?” to which I would offer up “Christmas.” This would send Jimmy into spasms of delight as he would want to explore the psychological beginnings of this particular anomaly from the expected norm, but if I were to tell him the hideous story of how my Christmas memories were indelibly imprinted with the memory of witnessing a homicide under the lights of the Yule tree during the ho-ho-holiday when I was but a wee one that then also ended with the tragic death of a second beloved relative of mine by day’s end I doubt we’d ever get to the question of Piveau’s survey that always has the audience waiting to giggle like fourth grade schoolgirls. “What’s your favorite curse word?” Just for the record mine is “Bollocks!” which isn’t what you were expecting at all now is it?

So, not being a fan of Christmas inevitably makes me cringe at the mere idea of seeing movies dedicated to the subject, but I was willing to give Fred Claus a chance based on the mere fact that the main character was named “Fred”, the same as my most beloved (and current, as I like to occasionally remind him) husband. I also happen to have a weird liking for star Vince Vaughn, though why is beyond me. He’s not particularly good-looking and he doesn’t come off as the sharpest tool in the shed. Whether it’s true or not, he usually looks like he has just wandered on screen after a three-day drug-fueled non-stop orgy in Vegas and still has the smell of sex and booze on himself even as he says he is ready to work. That is probably what makes him weirdly alluring. He comes “used” which means he is like most men out there. They’re not “Dr. McDreamy” types either. They hang out in bars and sleep around before they settle down. They even make mistakes (though rarely as grandiose as Vaughn’s (Ahem, need I remind anyone of Jennifer Aniston?), and in Vince’s case, we know his choice in material often stinks, so he should be grateful that he has the allure to so easily suck in the menopausal movie critic crowd with his dubious charms. He’s lucky, indeed, because we tend to be far more forgiving than the mainstream press.

I’m not sure Vince needs to necessarily be forgiven for making Fred Claus, but he does have some ‘splainin’ to do. The biggest thing he ~ or somebody at Warner Brothers ~ needs to do is explain why this movie has been marketed to the kiddie market when it obviously is packed full of adult themes and turns the North Pole into another Wisteria Lane; there’s unbridled sibling rivalry, back-stabbing business dealings, outraged in-laws, parental favoritism, love affairs gone sour, and even a psychiatric intervention. Does this sound like a children’s movie to you?

Okay, okay, so Fred Claus does have elves, reindeer, and all the usual holiday falderal, but this is a pretty dark comedy, not that there’s anything wrong with that (as long as you didn’t happen to drop your six year old off expecting him or her to enjoy another version of A Christmas Story (“You’ll shoot your eye out!”).

This movie begins with Fred (Vince Vaughn; The Break-Up) getting thrown in jail for stealing money as a bogus Salvation Army-type representative during the holiday bell-ringing season. This also screws up the big birthday date he was supposed to take his girlfriend Wanda (Rachel Weisz; The Fountain) on, thus tossing the final straw on the stack of his flubs and indiscretions as far as she is concerned, leaving him suddenly dumped and without bail. His only hope is to call his little brother, Nick (Paul Giamatti ;The Nanny Diaries), who offers to pay the bail on one condition ~ Fred has to come visit him and help him out for a couple of weeks at his factory. Of course, this isn’t exactly a “normal” family arrangement since Nick just happens to be Saint Nicholas and Fred’s visit entails a sleigh ride with eight flying reindeer and an elf guide named Willie (John Michael Higgins; Evan Almighty). Oh, and the factory? Yep, it’s Santa Claus’s famous toy factory at the North Pole.

I suppose the kids will marvel at the CGI reindeer but even they will probably recognize that this
North Pole is nothing new. It’s the same set used by Disney for The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause. Same fake snow, same fake snowmen, and same sets inside and out. The only thing that is different is that Paul Giamatti has replaced Tim Allen and Santa’s wife this time around is named Annette and played by Miranda Richardson (Spinning Into Butter), who seems to have a splintery board up her ass. She also has the nastiest smoker’s teeth I’ve ever seen and I found myself wondering why Hermey the elf who wanted to be a dentist in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” hasn’t dropped by and insisted on performing a cleaning. Yuck. It conjures up thoughts of Santa cringing at the idea of kissing the Mrs., but then we don’t have to just think those thoughts because later in the film this happy little family flick includes a scene in which Mrs. Claus complains about Santa’s inability to get his “sleigh to rise.” But I am getting ahead of myself.

In the midst of Fred’s indoctrination as the newest Claus to work at the Pole, there’s another sub-plot involving Kevin Spacey (Superman Returns) as an effete efficiency expert named Clyde, who seems to relish any disharmony in the Claus family, heightened even more with the arrival of Mama (Kathy Bates; Failure To Launch) and Papa (Trevor Peacock of tv’s "The Vicar of Dibley") along with a handy psychiatrist, Dr. Goldfarb (Allan Corduner; The White Countess).

Throw in another sub-plot about an orphan named Slam (Bobb'e J. Thompson; tv’s "That's So Raven"), that right, Slam, whose been hanging out in Fred’s apartment before Child Protective Services tracks him down and tosses him into an orphanage (I’m not kidding, really, straight out of Annie but without the singing and dancing). By this point, Fred Claus has more plot than any ten kids’ movies ought to and that’s not including the piddling bits and pieces of genuine kiddie amusements director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers) actually entertains with his occasional sight gags like oversized Fred sharing Elvin bunk beds with the wee Willie or Fred being tackled on the streets of Chicago by a dozen pissed-off Salvation Army Santas.

Overall, I actually enjoyed Fred Claus more than I thought I would, probably because it didn’t pander to children despite the advertising campaign that would have you expect that it was destined to do so. It does have a terrific cast all around, and if anyone can bring credibility to the role of Santa without making him a figure of schmaltz it is Giamatti. Vaughn plays his usual cynic with a heart of gold (even if it is a heart the size of a hamster). Weisz is far afield of her usual work as we’ve seen in higher-brow efforts like The Constant Gardener, yet they all perform in sync and make for a better Christmas treat than a family homicide. Trust me on that. Now, if it was only released a little closer to the actual holiday than, say, Halloween, it might truly have had a chance to make people feel even a tiny bit warm and fuzzy come December 25th, but it will no doubt be gone and forgotten by then, which is more than we can say for James Lipton and his Bernard Piveau questionnaire.

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