November 10, 2007

Movie Review: Fred Claus

Something tells me that I am going to have an unpopular opinion of this movie. No, it is not life and death and no, in the long run it is not all that important. However, I have to say that Fred Claus is a good movie. No, it is not perfect. If there is one thing that this film has nothing to worry about, it's being perfect. It moves forward at a pretty good pace, effortlessly shifting tones, providing laughs for the kids, and a little more depth for the adults. It should be said that this is coming from someone who had rather low expectations going in. Perhaps that is the key to why I liked it? I wonder if my expectations had been higher if my enjoyment level would have decreased in proportion to said expectations? I don't know, I think that is a question for the ages that will never have a satisfactory answer. Anyway, Fred Claus is a movie that has plenty to go around, even though it does not have much in the way of new insight to offer.

Last year, when the teaser announced its impending arrival, I was immediately interested. The trailer featured stars Vince Vaughn and Paul Giamatti sitting on a couch having a brotherly conversation about how Vince, as the titular Fred, never calls his mother or comes for visits. It was funny and seemed to promise the potential for a holiday classic. Months later, late Summer/early Fall, the full trailer appeared and any hope and good will instilled by the teaser evaporated in the presence of secret service elves. The moment they appeared and tackled Vince, I became somewhat convinced that this was going to turn out to be an awful attempt at a family holiday flick. Thus, my trepidation that this would be quality was born out of the presence of a trio of black-clad Santa elves.

Comparisons to Elf seem to be inevitable for this movie, although mentions of the The Santa Clause series are not out of the question. Fred Claus attempts to capture the aura of Elf and its fish out of water tale. It succeeds in getting the bright colored look right, however it fails to capture the unending sweetness of the 2003 film. In its place is a mish mash of tone, ranging from the silly to the darkly dramatic, to flat out weird. At times it is a jarring mix with little transition, but in the end I find that it ultimately works, in an uneven sort of way.

Let me back up a little bit.

The film begins in the past, the birth of Nicholas Claus to be exact. His older brother, Fred, makes a promise to the heavyweight newborn that he will be the best big brother ever. Now we all know that promises cannot always be kept, and when they are made at such a critical point in the narrative it is almost assured to be broken. Anyway, Fred comes to resent his kid brother's big and giving heart, as much for the do-gooder attitude as for his mother's incessant request that he be more like his brother.

At this point it should be mentioned that the story, by Jessie Nelson and Dan Fogelman, adds a little bit to the idea of Saint-hood. It states that if one is made a saint, said person will live forever, as will his/her family. It is a conceit that has to be accepted if one is to believe that Santa and his relatives are still alive int he present day, in this story at least. It is a rather implausible bit, but I am willing to let it go by.

Back to the story at hand.

Time jumps ahead to the present day, Santa(Giamatti) is off doing his thing while Fred(Vaughn) is living in Chicago as a fast talking entrepreneur dating a cop (Rachel Weisz). Fred has hit something of a bad streak which forces him to break his silence with his brother, so he calls and asks for a bit of money, well, a lot of money. In return for the cash, Fred has agreed to come north and help out in the final buildup toward the big Christmas delivery day. At the same time Santa is stressing the visit of an efficiency expert(Kevin Spacey) intent on shutting down Christmas.

Fred Claus hits all the expected notes, offering nothing new to the mix. I guess it really is a wonder that I liked this. Even with the telegraphed sentimental moments I found myself caught up in Fred's journey. At the start of the movie Fred is not a terribly nice guy, he isn't a bad guy, but he does make some questionable decisions and it is the movie's job to teach him a lesson.

Fred does have an interesting arc as he moves from resentful of his brother's success, and his all about me attitude to a more compassionate and caring individual willing to look at the Bing picture. Yes, the way characters are introduced and ignored for long stretches points to them being more plot point that interesting figure, but I like how they work. In particular the orphan child, Slam, that is one of Fred's few friends. I also like how they introduced Charlene (the gorgeous Elizabeth Banks) in a role that would seem to point toward a romantic interest for Fred, yet has a very different angle. Then there is the oddly funny scene featuring siblings of celebrities, including Roger Clinton, Frank Stallone, and Stephen Baldwin.

In the end, Fred Claus is considerably cleverer than I expected. There are some nice dialogue exchanges between all involved and some funny site gags. Performances are decent all around with Paul Giamatti faring the best as the jolly Santa. Of the things I didn't like the ones at the top seem pretty minor, the cartoony sound effects, and the secret service elves. I warned you.

Bottomline. I laughed, I teared, I wanted to rip my eyes out (only briefly). I enjoyed this holiday film even though I felt a bit weird sitting through a Christmas movie weeks before Thanksgiving. Fred Claus is no holiday classic, but it has a lit more to offer than you are likely to expect. Give it a shot, you may find yourself surprised by what you find.



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