Wednesday, November 07, 2007

"Fred Claus" -- *

Let's get it out of the way up front: "Fred Claus" is fucking terrible. But it really didn't need to be; the elements were there for success. There's an unbelievably talented cast squandered here, as well as a cute gimmicky premise that could have worked, if only anyone had bothered to write a decent script. Which brings me to a rather important question: what the hell happened to Christmas movies? Is there a new mandate that they must be shit? Even with my inherent Jewiness, I genuinely love a good Christmas movie and have more than a few in my collection. Look on my wall and you'll find "Scrooged," "Love Actually," "Elf," "Muppet Christmas Carol," "The Nightmare Before Christmas," "The Santa Clause," "A Christmas Story," and "The Family Stone" to boot.

But lately, filmmakers think they can utilize all the same generic Christmas formula elements in a high-concept plot, toss in a name or two and reap the benefits. This thought process has inevitably resulted in some of the worst movies in recent years; the most putrid film of 2006 was "Deck the Halls," and near the top of the list in previous years was "Christmas with the Kranks." This year, David Dobkin's "Fred Claus" joins the ever-expanding list of awful holiday fare, and adding insult to injury, it's not even the worst Christmas movie I've seen this week (a review of the other to come on Friday).

Beginning with a risible prologue showing the origins of Santa (Nicholas) Claus and his black sheep brother, Fred, "Fred Claus" establishes its general lack of inspiration right from the get-go. In explaining Nicholas' origins, we get that his mother (Kathy Bates) called him a "saint" so often that he actually became one, and his Christmas entry route is based out of one day when his house door was locked, so he used to chimney to get in. This whole sequence is quite bad, but once it moves into the present day with Fred (Vince Vaughn) all grown up, the movie stops being shit-tastic and actually settles into "meh" territory.

However, this mediocrity only lasts for about 5-10 minutes. It re-enters awfulness with a wacky sequence of dozens of Santas chasing after Fred while "zany" sound effects (which Dobkin indulges in throughout) like "boinggg" and "squish" animating their actions. After landing in jail, Fred calls brother Nick (Paul Giamatti) to bail him out, which Nicholas/Santa only agrees to if Fred comes to the North Pole to work off the loan. Fred, perpetually envious of "good son" Santa, continues to cause trouble, eventually ruining and ultimately saving Christmas, all while the jolly old elf is being dogged by an efficiency expert, played by Kevin Spacey (!). Also somewhere in the mix is Chris "Ludacris" Bridges as a DJ elf-- made possible using the "Little Man" technique of digitally grafting an actor's face onto a midget body.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Giamatti is the only one in this junk that actually attempts to give a real performance and refuses to go on autopilot. Almost astoundingly, he gives a genuinely good performance here, exuding warmth throughout and being the bearer of the one or two moments that made me chuckle. Vaughn, on the other hand, is as grating as I've ever seen him. The rapid fire rants that have become his trademark are just irritating and out-of-place here, and this is easily the least funny he's ever been (and that includes Gus Van Sant's remake of "Psycho").

Spacey's first appearance about 40 minutes in is a bit jarring-- mainly that an actor of his stature and reputation would appear in this shit-- but sadly, he isn't the only one here who's way above the material, and knows it. Rachel Weisz, who just won an Oscar a year and a half ago mind you, has a sizable role as Fred's romantic interest and is given almost nothing to do. Weisz, Spacey, Bates and Miranda Richardson (as Mrs. Claus) all literally look depressed whenever they're on screen, as if even they can't believe they're in this. Spacey may not literally be sleeping through his performance here, but he comes as close as humanly possible. Weisz is blander than I ever recall her being before, and Bates, once the finest actress in Hollywood, barely gets any dialogue and is mostly just reduced to rolling her eyes.

If ever there was a movie that seems as if it was rushed into production, "Fred Claus" is it. It's the type of movie where a character declares "I'm not going to dinner!," right before it cuts to a shot of them at dinner. The tone-deaf screenplay features tall-guy-in-an-elf-world jokes that were funny the first time I saw them in "Elf," and still manages to feature a plethora of sentimental material, chiefly some bullshit involving a black orphan Fred takes a liking to. Crap like this makes the technical shortfalls, like the chintzy/cheap looking North Pole sets and an "original" score that seems almost entirely stolen from "Mouse Hunt," the least of offenses on display.

High on that list though would have to be a (seemingly never-ending) scene featuring an elf dancing to the Rolling Stones' "Beast of Burden," and a disturbing sequence where the same elf kiss-rapes Elizabeth Banks, a la Adrien Brody-Halle Berry. And also, not to argue semantics with something as banal as "Fred Claus," but wouldn't the "#1 naughty kid" in the world be one who murders his family or shoots up a school, not just one who talks smack about Santa Claus, like he's depicted here?

It's clear the attempt here (or at least the pitch) was to make a family Christmas comedy with an edge, hence the presence of Vaughn. But an increasingly unlikable leading character paired with a storyline that dwells on the depressing nature of familial interaction results in a lazy, generic, pandering piece of work that alternates between hardcore groan-worthy sentimentality and genuine unpleasantness. Not to mention, a movie as thin as this has NO fucking right to run 115 minutes. A waste of talent and a showcase for half-baked, ill-inspired set-pieces, "Fred Claus" just depressed me more than anything.

"Fred Claus" opens in theaters nationwide this Friday, November 9.


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