1,360With a no BS title that ensures we know this fool-tide fable is veering in swiftly from left-field, Tinseltown's latest cinematic decking of the halls has absolutely no pretensions of high art or emotional melodrama. “It's A Wonderful Life” this ain't. It seems that Christmas movies are now a groan-worthy genre, the poignancy and sense of wonder that cushions the best entries - Scrooged, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Muppet Christmas Carol etc - have been mostly repackaged with appalling slapstick (Arnie's Jingle All The Way) or dreary homespun saccharine (Santa Claus 1,2 and 3). Even when Zemeckis took us all aboard The Polar Express, the experience was considerably duller and more uncomfortable than it had any right to have been. The only way to reinvigorate the genre, it would seem, is to subvert it, such as with the fantastic Bad Santa. And now Fred Claus, whilst certainly never even intending to stretch into such dark depravity as Billy Bob was willing to go, at least appears to have laced the wrapping paper on its seasonal farce, which is, otherwise, written large and colourful, with a slightly anarchic flavour of its own.
“How old are you?”
“Nine! And you have a 55 inch plasma TV in your room?”
Combining the usual relationship conundrums that arise at this time of year with a degree of existential lampoonery, Fred Claus may end up being just as happily schmaltzy as any Christmas movie is contractually obliged to be, but it still manages to lift the gaily decorated lid and slip a few little offbeat notes and quirky asides in there. Not the least of which is the origin story of the jolly chimney raider, himself. Born into a loving woodland-dwelling family - Kathy Bates is Mommy Claus and Trever Peacock, from Vicar Of Dibly fame, essays Daddy - the portly institution is lent a Gilliam-cum-Burton backstory. Little baby Nicholas gurgles his first words straight from birth - “Ho, ho, ho,” the cherub-cheeked chubster chuckles. Giving his own presents to the needy kids in the next village and developing an all-embracing sense of ultimate good humour and charity, Nicholas (a little saint, if ever there was one) soon alienates his older brother Frederick who, naturally, lacks the effervescence and charm of his scene-stealing sibling. When Frederick's only sanctuary from the cooing and the merriment that Nicholas brings to hearth and home - a tall conifer that he climbs to sit confiding with his only friend, a little bird called Chirp Chirp - is unceremoniously cut down by Santa-in-the-making, who only wants to bring it indoors as a gift for his brother, it is the last straw. Frederick knows he must make his own way in life and the Family Claus is, inevitably, torn apart.
As the narrator says, what becomes of Saint Nick is already widely known, but director David Dobkin's tale flicks forward to the present day to re-introduce us to Fred's situation. (A saint and his family and any partners or spouses, we are told, are automatically granted eternal life ... which is convenient, isn't it?) Now played by Vince Vaughn, Fred is a chancer, drifting from one job to another in Chicago, hoping to con, blag or steal his way to enough money to open up a casino. His on-off girlfriend, meter-maid Wanda, played by Rachel Weisz, wants commitment, a home and that trip to Paris that he's been promising. But when Fred's get-rich-quick scheming, involving a curb-side scam that incurs the wrath of multiple Santas out collecting for charity, goes seriously awry and lands him behind bars, he needs bail money real quick. With Wanda most miffed and no-one else in the world left to call upon for help, Fred has to bite the bullet and make a long-distance call to the North Pole and the brother he hasn't spoken to for a long, long time.
“Oh, Nick, you carry the weight of the world on your shoulders.”
“I am not stressed-out!”
With Paul Giamatti playing the big guy in red and white - his festive facial foliage looks as though it has fallen off Donald Sutherland's head for a Winter break - the scene is set for some serious soul-searching and moral re-discovery. Saint Nick agrees to help his brother financially if Fred comes to the North Pole and helps in the big Christmas push to get the toys made and the Naughty or Nice children's lists made up in time for that very important one-night-delivery. It is a tall order and totally against Fred's grumbling, cynical nature, but no sooner has he agreed than Santa's chief elf, Willy (John Michael Higgins) has arrived at his apartment with a sleigh parked up on the roof. That necessary sense of wonder is brought majestically into play when we journey to the Christmas Town nestled in the white-out capital of the world. A terrific shot sees the main strip come alive with Grinch-style buildings and candy-coated neon, and a vast population whose entire existence seems to revolve around gift-manufacture, carol-singing and brightly-attired etiquette are introduced. Of course, Fred - a man of the world, who can see beyond the plastic set-dressing and incessant platitudes - will become privy to the problems that bubble beneath the surface of Happy Face Central. Willy is in love with Santa's little helper, the lovely Charlene (Elizabeth Banks), but even if he was the tallest elf in the world - oh hang on, isn't that Will Ferrel? - the object of his desires would probably still overlook him. The workers in the factory are subjected to the same Christmas ditty over and over again to keep them in the appropriate mood - but at least it isn't from Slade or Wizard! And, most seriously of all, Kevin Spacey's nasty auditor, Clyde Northcutt, has arrived in town with clear intentions of shutting Santa's operation down for good for reasons of “inefficiency”.
“Hey, Brother Fred - can I get a Ho ... Ho -”
“OOH ... you Scrooge, you lose!”
David (Shanghai Knights) Dobkin had worked with Vaughn before on The Wedding Crashers and it is fair to say that he just lets his main man get on with things. Vaughn, though, spends altogether too much of the first act indulging in rapid, breathless dialogue that fizzes over long, long lines and threatens to turn every sentence into a virtual monologue. Many of his exchanges sound reminiscent of the “no-gaps-at-all” interrogation of John Candy by Macaulay Culkin in Uncle Buck. But he does possess that workaday, down to earth humour that makes him effortlessly easy to like. Although he is ostensibly painted as the rogue of the family, the perennial loser, there is far too much heart and soul already in evidence with Fred for his eventual and hardly unexpected transformation into nice guy and loving brother to be much of a character swing. Giamatti, on the other hand, has an agreeable touch with his depiction of the rotund one. Things are going bad for Santa, what with that nefarious auditor on the prowl and his unpredictable sibling fouling up the time-honoured traditions of Elf-land, and when a bad back - after a bout of brotherly-sparring in the snow - puts him out of action, there is a definite side to Saint Nick that we don't exactly see very often. Giamatti may be under forest of white thatch, but those troubled, red-ringed eyes give away his forlorn dejection at the cruel turn of events with some conviction. Spacey's conniving Northcutt is just a pure example of an actor going through the motions for the paycheck at the end of it all, though. Which is a real shame. The “Santa in financial trouble” angle is neat one that could have been really exploited by someone of Spacey's calibre, but the ex-Keysor Soze is just content to lean back and play a less-lethal Lex Luthor which, at least, ties in with a natty, but corny, plot twist later on involving his ulterior motives for being such a party-pooper.
“You need to practice tough love.”
“I'm a saint, sweetheart. Tough love is a little difficult for me.”
The notion of sibling rivalry is hardly explored to any great degree, though, leaving a lot of potential angst left hanging. Fred and Nick's dispute is never really going to throw any major spanners in the works - that's a given. But screenwriter Dan Fogelman does manage one satirical coup that is nicely on the ball. When Fred goes to a meeting of disenfranchised brothers to help work out his problems, he is surrounded by three genuine borderline celebs that have spent their entire lives in the shadow of superstar brothers - Frank Stallone, Roger Clinton and the on-the-boil Stephen Baldwin. This sequence is a clue to how knowing this film could have been and is certainly a cool cameo corner to raise a snigger or two at the very least.
On the downside, however, Rachel Weisz and her performing eyebrows is literally a blight on the film. Just what the hell she is doing in this is beyond me. The role is so throwaway and so shallow that you have to wonder if she is in some sort of financial trouble, or whether she lost a bet to some casting executive. And to top it all, she even affects a bogus English accent which, considering that she is, in fact, English, is just utterly preposterous. Seriously, just see if you can listen to her without wincing.
“You're all fired, in the morning you'll all be on a bus back to Elfistan!”
When it comes to the little people, the elves are truly a lower class. Dobkin certainly doesn't mind taking a few pot-shots at the diminutive folk. A trio of black-clad ninja elves may attempt to go someway to redressing the balance, but the sing-a-long and DJ-bashing of a little Ludacris - rapping and scratching in Santa's soundmixing booth - could actually be a tad offensive to a certain minority. But, on the whole, Fred Claus does enough things right to make the story fly by with enough small-minded charm to while away a couple of hours after some hectic Christmas shopping. The usual morals are all trotted out and the ending ticks off all the necessary heart-warming boxes. So, if you are the kind of person who laps up Tim Allen's annual antics before fixing up some more lights on the roof, then Fred Claus should be enough of a Winter warmer for you. It certainly isn't the best present under the celluloid tree, but as a stocking filler, it should do just fine.
PictureFred Claus gets splashed gaudily across the cinema screen with a 2.35:1 aspect, but doesn't really come alive until we reach the North Pole. But, even then, as colourful as it is - with those bright costumes, Christmas lights and sparkles aplenty - the film lacks that visual pizzazz that you would normally associate with something so seasonal. This is no Grinch in the eye-candy department. Though you shouldn't be dismayed - the film still has plenty of detail and a nice, wide image that is satisfyingly panoramic. A nice touch is the Aurora Borealis shimmering above Santa-ville, and the aerial views of the sleigh thundering across the heavens on its whistle-stop tour of the world are pleasing enough, even if the CG isn't exactly from out of the top drawer.
Dobkin directs with only smidgens of the fantastique, his style more simplistic and straight forward. The big moments - such as the great multiple Santa pursuit through the city streets and the dance number in the toy workshop - are well-handled and fill the screen with lots of incidental shenanigans, but this is an altogether lower-key movie that prefers its punch-lines to be spoken rather than painted across the screen. The sets are good, by and large, but again there is nothing presented here that is memorable or even unusual. Personally, I would have liked to have seen more of the woodland village that Fred and Nick hail from in the prologue, but c'est la vie.
On HD or BD, I would expect the film to retain its vibrancy and lush colours, but there is a dearth of visual panache that I could state, here and now, would be something to especially look forward to with 1080p relish.
SoundAlthough very lively and involving, Fred Claus is hardly the most demanding of aural experiences. The sound design is nicely spread across a wide front and there are a couple of overhead effects - the sleigh especially - but there is really very little of exception to report on, I'm afraid. The dialogue is clear and comes over well - Vaughn's initially motor-mouthed verbiage never merging into one continuous mumble, Spacey's acerbic smarm cutting patronisingly through the breathless joviality and bellicose sentiment of Giamatti - the song and dance routines are typically loud and brash - and there is plenty of ambience from the city streets or the bustling assembly line of the toy work-shop.
So, Fred Claus sounds cool enough, but is unlikely to set the world on fire even if furnished with luscious lossless sound for its home-run.
VerdictWell, I actually enjoyed Fred Claus more than I expected to. It doesn't add much to the genre, that is true - well, apart from that origins-style prologue - but in the over-crowded field of festive tomfoolery, this is perhaps a little more likeable, courtesy of Vaughn's blunt-faced charisma, Giamatti's over-the-hill, back-to-the-wall Santa and the slightly unusual slant that Fogelman's script takes. Thus the ubiquitous sack-load of Crimbo-cliches don't feel half as patronising as usual.
So, considering this is the season to be jolly and the annual Yuletide flicks are once again upon us, Fred Claus is an entertaining enough excursion - providing, of course, that you're into this sort of thing in the first place. And if you're not ... well, bah, humbug, then!
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