November 15, 2007

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Fred Claus (PG)
Paul Giamatti is a near-heart-attack Santa and Vince Vaughn is his slackerish black sheep older brother Fred in Fred Claus, a holiday movie that’s overly talky for kids, underly funny for me.

As a child, Fred grew to resent his younger brother Nick, who was treated like a saint for his giving nature that frequently seemed to take from Fred.Eventually Nick (Giamatti) became an actual saint and, as part of the benefit of being a saint, Nick and his immediate family stopped aging.

Fred (Vince Vaughn) might have stopped physically aging in his late 30s but he seems to have psychologically stopped aging in his early 20s. Not a helper in Santa’s workshop, Fred is a repo man in Chicago with dreams of owning his own off-track betting parlor. He has a girlfriend, Wanda (Rachel Weisz), who would like him to take her a bit more seriously (stuff like remembering her birthday, showing up for her birthday dinner), and a young neighbor, Slam (Bobb’e J. Thompson), who looks up to him, in part because of Slam’s own lousy home life.

When Fred is arrested for trying to raise some of his betting parlor down payment by posing as a bell-ringing charity volunteer — he’s chased down and beaten up by a crowd of irate Santas — he doesn’t have too many people to call, so he calls his brother. Nick tries to follow his wife’s (Miranda Richardson) instruction to practice tough love and offers Fred the money for bail plus the money to start his business if Fred will come up to the North Pole to help Nick in the days leading up to Christmas. Fred agrees and faster than you can say “normal-sized actor’s face CGIed onto the body of a little person,” Willie (John Michael Higgins) the elf shows up to bring Fred via reindeer-driven sleigh up to Santa’s Village.

But things aren’t all gum drops and sugar plums up north. The sullen Fred isn’t the only problem facing Nick. Clyde (Kevin Spacey), the auditor from some fairy tale creatures home office, is skulking around making notes about the North Pole’s efficiency. Three strikes and we’ll move your whole operation to the South Pole, Clyde warns.

Job outsourcing, family squabbles, relationship troubles — how is this a lighthearted family movie? Oh, right, the elves. Except the prominent elves here are not little people (or, thankfully, children, as in the Santa Clause movies). The two big elf roles here go to Higgins and Ludacris, both of whom have their heads glued (via CGI) onto some now-faceless little person’s body. And maybe some of their scenes, specifically Higgins’, were shot with forced perspective to make Vaughn appear bigger. Whatever they did, the result is that their faces seem to hover right in front of but not quite on their heads. The effect is extremely distracting and a little bit unsettling, as though different people are about to spring out of the bodies of the elves, like some alien parasite.

Fa la la la la la la la la.

Fred Claus is not quite dark enough to be the black comedy it clearly wants to be and, with actors like Vaughn and Giamatti, easily could have been. Santa isn’t perfect and jolly here — he’s kind of stressed out, overbearing and prone to burying his problems in an onslaught of Christmas cookies. Kathy Bates shows up to play a Mother Claus who is pushy, coddling and at least partly to blame for her sons’ problems. Weisz is surprisingly perfect as a cockney-voiced meter maid who seems to see Fred’s odd family as just another not-quite-right quality of her difficult boyfriend.

For all that, the movie isn’t quite there. The Spacey stuff is just too, well, too Spacey-y,. The man acts like he’s trying out for Hamlet even though his lines are about toy production. Vaughn and Giamatti have about the right tone, but not for the movie that is going on around them. That movie involves boogying elves, Willie’s unrequited love for buxom Santa helper Charlene (Elizabeth Banks) and some wackiness with the toy production. The Bad-Santa-with-sibling-rivalry that the movie seems to want to be gets all mixed up with the riff on Santa Clause that somebody clearly thought was necessary to bring in the families.

But, as Bee Movie recently illustrated, just throwing some wackiness into long stretches of talking isn’t going to make the youngsters happy. Likewise, even only occasional elf humor can sour attempts to make a comedy something enjoyable for those of us jaded egg-noggers in the crowd staring down the barrel of another holiday season. C

Rated PG for mild language and some rude humor. Directed by David Dobkin and written by Dan Fogelman and Jessie Nelson, Fred Claus is an hour and 56 minutes long and distributed in wide release by Warner Brothers.