by Mel Valentin
If it’s November, then it must be Christmas in Hollywood. Every year, Christmas comes earlier and earlier. For retailers, the holiday season generally begins the day after Thanksgiving, “Black Friday” (so-called because holiday sales usually put retailers into the “black,” accounting wise). The first full week in November gives us "Fred Claus," a mildly entertaining, fitfully funny, occasionally bland, but definitely overlong, family-oriented, holiday-themed film directed by David Dobkin ("Wedding Crashers," "Shanghai Knights," "Clay Pigeons") and starring Vince Vaughan as an obnoxious ne’er-do-well older brother to a certain Santa Claus and Paul Giamatti as his younger, much more successful younger brother, Nick Claus (a.k.a. Santa).Thanks to a clunky prologue, we get the skinny (and the fat) on how and why Fred Claus (Vince Vaughn) became the Claus family’s black sheep. Born, from the looks of it, during the early 19th or late 18th century, the young Fred (Liam James) bristles at all the adoration and affection his younger brother, Nick (Theo Stevenson), gets from their parents (Kathy Bates, Trevor Peacock). Nick is so unfailingly polite, so considerate of others that he manages to become a living saint. Everyone in his family, including his resentful, disgruntled older brother, gets the gift of immortality. Flash forward to the present where the adult Fred, now living in Chicago, has turned into a fast-talking conman with a thousand moneymaking schemes, none of which seem to work out for him. Somehow Fred has a girlfriend, Wanda (Rachel Weisz), who tolerates his constant lying, but even Wanda is beginning to lose patience with Fred.
"It's Christmas in November and we don't feel fine."
Fred, needing fifty grand as a deposit on a commercial space he’s hoping to turn into an off-track betting office, gets arrested after soliciting money for a fake charity from a street corner. Chased down by an army of Santa impersonators, Fred is thrown in prison. Short on money and desperate, he calls Nick and asks for bail money and a sizable business loan. Nick, practicing “tough love” at his wife Annette’s (Miranda Richardson) suggestion, agrees to loan Nick the money, but only if Nick will come work with him at the North Pole for a few days. Nick, it turns out, is feeling pressure from the Powers-That-Be who have sent an efficiency expert, Clyde Northcutt (Kevin Spacey), to review Nick’s North Pole operation and, if necessary, suggest cuts and changes up to and including Nick’s termination as Santa Claus. Not even befriending one of Santa’s elves, Willie (John Michael Higgins), or helping Willie win over Charlene (Elizabeth Banks), Santa’s bodacious Little Helper, is enough to warm Fred’s Grinch-like heart.
Warm Fred’s heart is, unsurprisingly enough, is where Fred Claus is headed. All of Fred’s jaded cynicism and resentment toward his brother, his unsupportive parents, and the Christmas holidays, will, over the course of two hours, melt away. Fred Claus is, of course, a family film and any family-oriented film can only take the dysfunction so far. Sure Fred resents his family, sure he screws up (and apparently has screwed up for decades), sure Fred’s tolerant girlfriend is about to walk out on him, sure Fred gives seriously bad advice to a young neighbor, Slam (Bobb'e J. Thompson), who seems to idolize him, but in the end, Fred will come around and, in the process, show what he’s made of while proving that they are no undeserving “naughty” kids, just misunderstood ones who need affection and understanding, not punishment.
Message and dysfunctional family comedy dynamics aside, Fred Claus does manage to be sporadically funny, no more so than in the interactions Fred and Nick have as adults, which contain some element of truth. Besides an early scene involving an army of Santas chasing Fred through downtown Chicago, Fred Claus has a handful of laugh-out-loud moments, including one centered on a little known support group, “Siblings Anonymous,” but none of them, alas, involving the cheerful elves, who appear in far too many scenes, including at least two involving dancing (thanks, but no thanks). Oddly, the director, David Dobkin, relied on CGI for two of the major speaking parts, both elves. Dobkin and his visual effects crew basically pasted on the heads of average-sized actors, John Michael Higgins and Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges (as an elfin DJ), to the bodies of little people, making for some unsettling, creepy moments, none of them necessary."Fred Claus," though, succeeds or fails on the strength of its central performances. Vaughan is Vaughan, playing the borderline obnoxious, fast-talking character he’s essayed many times before. In fact, his performance here is just another iteration of the Vaughan persona he’s perfected over the last ten years. At least Paul Giamatti does a bit more with his role, but that’s due as much to the character he’s playing and the makeup he’s wearing. The other performances aren’t particularly noteworthy, but that’s certainly not due to the supporting cast (e.g., Rachel Weisz, Kevin Spacey, Miranda Richardson, Kathy Bates), which includes three Oscar winners, but to Dan Fogelman ("Cars") and Jessie Nelson’s ("Because I Said So," "I Am Sam," "Stepmom") screenplay, which doesn’t give them much to do here.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=15574&reviewer=402
originally posted: 11/10/07 07:19:04