Thursday, November 08, 2007

Fred Claus: Ho Ho Holiday Hokum!

(This is a different version of a review scheduled to appear in print and online at Folio Weekly and Las Vegas City Life)

"This is a story you've never heard before," a narrator intones at the start of Fred Claus, a snow mountain of hazardous holiday hokum, as a scene from medieval times unfolds – inside a thatched-roof hut housing a nominally happy family, a screaming, wild-haired mother (Kathy Bates) is giving birth to her second child.

The appropriate rejoinder to that optimistic opening declaration ought to go something like this: "and we hope we never hear it again, lest we're forced to bury director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers) with a stake of holly through his heart."

Speaking of Scrooge, there are at least two too many dark, dour, depressing characters in this overlong, seasonal would-be comedy, a holding tank for an otherwise talented cast, including Bates, Paul Giamatti, Vince Vaughn, Kevin Spacey, Rachel Weisz and Miranda Richardson. Couldn't they have collectively bargained for a worthwhile story and script?

A quick sequence regarding the early years of loving, generous, practically divine kid Nicholas – his mom calls him a "saint" – and his resentful older brother Frederick is followed by a flash-forward; the characters survive across the centuries because they have been frozen in time. It's Chicago, circa now, and Fred is scamming his way through life as a repo man, while St. Nick is busy doing good at the North Pole.

Fred is neglectful of his girlfriend, lovely Wanda (Weisz), meter maid, and he has issues with Christmas. Holiday tunes irk him, to the point of abandoning a cab whose driver won't turn off the radio. Fred is disturbed by Santa's omnipresence, complaining that the guy is "a fame jockey … a megalomaniac." He's so Santaphobic that he puts on a Kris Kringle outfit as a ploy to gain donations from sidewalk shoppers, thus enraging a rapidly expanding group of guys in Santa suits, who chase the interloper down the street, into a mall, through escalators and into a toy store. It's reminiscent of the massed Elvis scenes in Honeymoon in Vegas, except, you know, not so funny.

The city scenes are mere preamble. The real action, of course, takes place at the North Pole, a storybook-perfect toy train village come to life. There, Santa, with the help of head elf Willie (John Michael Higgins), sexy assistant Charlene (Elizabeth Banks) and nagging but loyal wife Annette (Richardson), is cranking out toys in a factory that looks just like the Santa-land toy factories in any other Christmas movie ever made.

About those two other Scrooges in the movie: Mrs. Claus can't stifle her disdain for her brother-in-law, particularly when he comes visiting on a mission to retrieve some cash for a dubious business enterprise. Far more dastardly is Clyde Northcutt (Spacey), an efficiency expert determined to shut down Santa's operation and outsource the work.

It's all about as unfunny as it sounds, with the entire contraption tumbling toward a finale that has Fred and Clyde finding redemption, family members finding peace and harmony and so on.

In what comes off as a desperation move, the script makes a place for a protracted session set at a therapy group for men overshadowed by their siblings. No reason to spoil the movie's sole surprise. Let's just say that the brothers of a president, an action hero-turned-politician and the runt of a famous acting family never did so little work for (one presumes) such fat paychecks.

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