Monday, December 29, 2008

FRED CLAUS: A Late Holiday Review

If someone were to limit themselves to Christmas films released in the 90s and early 2000s as the foundation for judging the merits of Christmas movies as a genre, it's likely they would find them wanting. Very few of the movies are classics. Crass commercial pieces like Jingle All the Way, misguided narratives like Jack Frost, combined with the absent-minded parents of Home Alone and the meanness of the characters in Deck the Halls, might lead a viewer to believe that Hollywood film-makers have lost the ability to make a touching Christmas film. 

Some might argue that many of the "going to visit the quirky family" Christmas films are a reaction to memories of syrupy/saccharin Christmas films of yore. Maybe these films are the product a combination of this reaction with the cold reality that most of us are not blessed with the idyllic families of Christmas movies past. Never mind that the families actually depicted in the classic films are often broken -- like the single mother in Miracle on 34th Street -- or enduring significant hardships like the Baileys in It's a Wonderful Life. There seems to be some part of the post 1950s film-making gestalt that is resistant to making movies that are fun and heartwarming. 

Naturally, there are wonderful exceptions. About a Boy and Love Actually present lovely narratives that capture the holiday spirit without being too sugary sweet. And Jon Favreau's modern masterpiece Elf manages to successfully bridge the gap between adolescent fart comedy and truly capturing the Christmas spirit. Even an overly commercial franchise like The Santa Claus can have wonderful moments, as demonstrated by the second film in the trilogy (avoid the others), where the value of the season and the warmth of giving can be seen. 

Before this meandering preamble is misunderstood, this is not a discussion of any so-called "War on Christmas" -- which is just so much blustering attempting to reignite/fuel existing culture wars. Anyone who has read our earlier Holiday Movie Marathon list should be well aware that isn't what is going on here. This is a conversation about the making of quality Christmas movie fare. A phenomenon that seems to happen less often of late than TCM makes me believe once was the norm. One finds it hard to imagine a Jingle All the Way being directed by Ernst Lubitsch. 

It was films like Love Actually and Elf that made me believe that maybe Hollywood -- yes I know Love Actually is British, but when talking about film one almost always blames/praises Hollywood -- had finally outgrown its obsessive avoidance of potentially corny fare. Hollywood, like most modern comic book fans, seems to want to appear to favor "sophisticated" narratives over "simplistic" and "corny" ones. The same observation applies to most modern film critics as well. Never mind how moving the final scene of The Shop Around the Corner is, it seems they would prefer Alfred Kralik spend Christmas shooting up heroin in an alleyway while freezing to death instead of finding the woman of his dreams. 

One might argue that this resistance to "corn" goes beyond the Christmas season, but that is not the purpose of this background. As was written above, Elf directed by Jon Favreau is one of the films that made this humble film viewer believe that there was room for the heartfelt Christmas comedy. Last November, Vince Vaughn followed in his friend's footsteps and starred in a Christmas comedy film. The name of the film was Fred Claus and it was released on DVD this past November 25, just in time for this year's holiday season. Vince Vaughn is an actor who has given audiences some wonderful performances in both dramas and comedies. The Break-Up is one of the better films of the past few years, and Dodgeball is a comedic gem. Vaughn is, for lack of a better comparison, our generation's version of Dean Martin. A giant Dean Martin who doesn't have any albums, but Dean Martin none the less. 

The question then stands, "is Fred Claus typical Hollywood cynicism or does it have 'heart' like the best of Christmas films?" The answer to this not so simple question, is simply...neither. The film doesn't showcase your typical Hollywood cynicism, but it does contain some. It alternates between cynicism and critiquing cynicism. Nor does the film have a genuine emotional core. It seems to want a core, but it lacks any real emotional depth. Let us give a basic synopsis of the story and use this as a place to simultaneously find some of the areas where the film failed. The film begins, simply enough, with a voice over introducing the setting -- which as it turns out is an idyllic winter cottage. As the audience we, along with a very young Fred Claus, witness the birth of one Nickolas Claus.

This leaves the audience needing to react to two suspension of disbelief removing moments. First, one might argue that beginning a Christmas movie with labor and birth isn't the most endearing way to begin a film. Second, everyone knows that Claus is a nickname for Nickolas and making the family's last name Claus just to make the film's title -- and titular character -- make sense is beyond lame. These facts alone make it hard for an audience to maintain what Jon Boorstin would call our Vicarious eye (not to mention our Visceral eye which is never appealed to in this film) and leaves the film victim to our most critical viewing lens, our Voyuer's eye.

At Claus's birth, young Fred promises to be the "best big brother ever." It is a promise that Fred intends to keep, but one that he fails to keep in the background of our film's narrative. You see, Nickolas Claus is a Saint and leads a saintly life. Nick and Fred's mother is proud of Nick, but continually asks Fred why he cannot be more like his brother. There are a number of scenes devoted to increasing Fred's resentment of Nick. Thus the film is given its potentially cynical beginning when Santa's brother is turned into envious sibling.

It should be noted that there is one scene in the film's opening that could have been put to very good use in discussing what the Christmas season is all about. Fred gives Nickolas a hand made journal with Nickolas' name engraved on the cover. Nickolas proceeds to plop the journal on top of other presents he will deliver to "more needy" children. The film mentions that the season is about the joy of giving, but this could have become a major theme of the film. Being a thankful receiver is in itself a wonderful gift. Instead it is mentioned and then handed off. Nickolas becomes St. Nick (Santa Claus)and he and his family are granted immortality as he becomes the world famous toy giver.

While the audience may be willing to accept that the entire Claus clan becomes immortal, the film never explains why Nickolas -- the younger brother -- seems so much older than Fred -- the older brother.

Cut to the modern day where Fred is a jaded man who is one step away from being a grifter, but there may be hope for this character yet. He has a girlfriend, with obligatory relationship trouble, and seems to be taking care of a struggling young boy -- who is shortly taken into custody by child protective services. The stage is set for Fred's redemption, even if his current primary concern is raising 50k to start up a casino across the street from the stock exchange. One thing leads to another and Fred finds himself in jail. He calls his brother to bail him out, both for the jail's bail and a loan for the casino, and agrees to help his brother get ready for Christmas in return for the money. And Santa really does need the help as "the board" has sent efficiency expert Clyde (Kevin Spacey) to evaluate whether Santa gets to keep his job.

Who this board is and why they want to out source Santa's business is never really explained. Clyde's own anger is examined, in a good scene, but the board's reasoning remains a mystery.

Things go badly, Santa has a nervous breakdown, and Fred must save Christmas.

There is a Fred as matchmaker subplot that rings of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and some commentary as to what constitutes a "naughty kid." In the case of this film, all naughty kids are naughty due to circumstances. There are, the film claims, no naughty kids. Which explains why the jerk who picks on the kids at school still gets the Atari 2600 for Christmas.

The film has one or two touching moments as Fred attempts to save Christmas, and his brother's job, but it also vacillates between the heartfelt and the cynical. The film's narrative seems as confused as the films Santa mythology. Vince Vaughn, Kevin Spacey, and John Michael Higgens all put in very strong performances. One imagines that many of the best lines in the film are adlibbed by Vaughn. Rachel Weisz is underused and Kathy Bates' character seemingly repeats one line ad nauseum. But scenes like the one where Fred "livens up" the north pole's radio listening selection are unnecessary and bring the narrative to a halt. One should not include scenes in a screenplay merely because they make for neat visual comedy. 

The special effects are good. The set design is usually very good. The score and the soundtrack are also enjoyable. The film's editing would have been helped by a more cohesive screenplay. Fred Claus is entertaining at times, but it remains a confused film with too many narrative subplots -- too often ignored -- and too little heart. 

Two-and a Half out of Five Stars

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