Friday, 14 June 2024

Spirit of myth not fully delivered by 'Fred Claus' comedy

FRED CLAUS (Rated PG)


It’s still too early for the Christmas spirit. I can tell, because even my goofy neighbor hasn’t put up a string of multi-colored lights around his porch.


But that’s not stopping Warner Bros from stuffing “Fred Claus” in our cinematic stocking. While it’s better than a lump of coal, “Fred Claus” fails to match the level of holiday cheer realized from those goofy Tim Allen comedies about jolly Saint Nick.


Still, a comedy with Vince Vaughn has plenty of redeeming values, especially when the fast-talking actor retains his borderline surly, cantankerous persona for subversive comic effect. More to the point, “Fred Claus” draws laughs from the unlikely situation of Santa Claus having to deal with sibling rivalry.


Vince Vaughn’s Fred Claus is the firstborn in the Claus family (Kathy Bates and Trevor Peacock as the parents). Sibling rivalry develops when his younger brother Nicholas (Paul Giamatti in the adult role) is born and starts showing signs of saintly behavior. Of course, Fred grows up being jealous of his younger sibling, and as the years pass, he becomes distant from Nicholas.


As an adult, Fred resents being in the shadow of his famous brother who lives at the North Pole and makes the children of the world happy. Fred is a fast-talking Chicago repo man who thinks nothing of repossessing a child’s plasma TV during the holiday season. He also gets into serious trouble running a charity scam, and ends up having to call on Santa Claus to post bail. On top of that, he’s scheming to open up a betting parlor across from the stock exchange.


Over the objections of his concerned wife Annette (Miranda Richardson), Nicholas gets Fred out of jail on the condition that he work off the loan by going to the North Pole and earning the money as a helper in Santa’s workshop. The trouble is that Fred isn’t exactly elf material, and with Christmas fast approaching, he could jeopardize the entire holiday.


He’s also jeopardizing his relationship with girlfriend Wanda (Rachel Weisz), an attractive meter maid who has grown weary of Fred’s irresponsible behavior and tendency to forget special occasions, to say nothing of his commitment avoidance.


Up at the North Pole, things are not going smoothly for Santa. We learn that Santa is overweight because he eats too much due to stress, and his wife constantly fusses about many things, in addition to being displeased about Santa’s soft touch in terms of helping the reckless Fred.


Even worse than a meddling spouse, more problems for Santa arrive in the form of cold-hearted efficiency expert Clyde Northcutt (Kevin Spacey), who has been sent to scrutinize Santa’s operation and to determine whether the whole North Pole gig should be outsourced to a more productive outfit.


Moreover, the well-intentioned Fred has a few quirks that upend the precision of the elves workshop. For one thing, he flips out when the workshop DJ Donnie (Ludacris) refuses to stop playing “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” over and over again.


Taking control of the airwaves, Fred gets the elves hooked on rock 'n' roll. He also starts to loosen up the head elf Willie (John Michael Higgins), giving him encouragement to work up the nerve to do something more than just pine away for the statuesque Charlene (Elizabeth Banks).


It’s rather curious that Santa’s chief of operations is a hot chick who wears a low-cut costume. She may be an attractive bean counter, but Santa is an upstanding family man even if he has to put up with nagging from his wife and mother. For a Christmas movie, it is a curiosity that so many of the characters have a dark side that would seem out of place in a movie that seeks family reconciliation.


Nevertheless, “Fred Claus” has its pleasures and joys in its numerous gags and comic situations, eliciting enough laughs to make the film enjoyable if not memorable.


Despite Vince Vaughn’s comic ability to get some mileage out of even the most predictable circumstances, “Fred Claus” is likely in the end to have a shelf life shorter than the holiday season.


DVD RELEASE UPDATE


The coming holiday season seems the right time for the release of “A Dennis the Menace Christmas,” which combines “A Christmas Carol” with the live action version of one of America’s most widely recognizable, chaos-wreaking comic strip characters.


Film and television star Robert Wagner takes on the role of Mr. Wilson, while Louise Fletcher is Mrs. Wilson and newcomer Maxwell Perry Cotton, in the role of Dennis, becomes his tormentor.


Dennis faces his greatest challenge to deliver Mr. Wilson the “Holiday Spirit” and secure Santa’s delivery of his ultimate present, the Raleigh Mite-Y-Max bike.


Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.


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