Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
November 2007

He ain't heavy...

A promising idea and a great cast don't add up to much in 'Fred Claus'

Fred Claus
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: David Dobkin
Screenplay: Dan Fogelman
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti, Kevin Spacey, Rachel Weisz, John Michael Higgins, Kathy Bates, Miranda Richardson and Elizabeth Banks
Rated PG / 1 hour, 56 minutes
Opened November 9, 2007
(out of four)

It's one thing to waste a good concept. I mean, that happens all the time. Great ideas get used up by bad filmmakers and bad films dozens of times every year. So that's what people say about Fred Claus - good idea, bad execution.

But it's not just the premise - this is one of the best casts of the entire year. And I'm not just talking about the four combined Oscars (which should be five, since Paul Giamatti was robbed of even a nomination, let alone a gold statuette, for Sideways, but I digress). This is a uniformly great cast, right down to the minor roles and cameos.

And yet they're almost all stuck with characters that the screenplay doesn't really know what to do with (even the main characters) and inside a premise that seemingly never got past the "hey, wouldn't this be fun?" stage.

There is a scene during which Fred Claus (Vince Vaughn) attends a support group for less-successful siblings, and he's joined in his misery by the likes of Frank Stallone, Stephen Baldwin and Roger Clinton - brothers of Sylvester, Alec and Bill, respectively. It's a funny scene that temporarily lifts us out of the contrived warm-and-fuzzies of the rest of the movie and into what is lurking underneath the entire time but rarely gets out: a really good dark comedy.

If only the rest of the film had the sharpness of the Siblings Anonymous scene, Fred Claus wouldn't feel so much like a waste. Instead of following through on the comic possibilities of the plot - sibling rivalry, jealousy, family strife, one-upmanship, spite, family chaos that only comes around during the holidays - the film takes too easy a route to too easy a destination. It's almost classic: Every character is given a major obstacle, all of which can (and will) get conveniently - even magically - solved all at once.

The actors have the goods to pull it off despite all that, but they're too often held back by bad writing, sloppy structure or crappy CGI (depending on the character).

Paul Giamatti - who already played gleefully against type in this year's Shoot 'Em Up - is the weary but all-too-good-natured Jolly St. Nick, whose livelihood is being threatened by whatever corporate firm happens to own production and marketing rights to Christmas.

Vince Vaughn is in his natural mode as Santa's jaded, irresponsible older brother with an inferiority complex and a hopelessly cynical worldview.

Rachel Weisz is his long-suffering girlfriend. Kathy Bates is his long-suffering mother. Miranda Richardson is Santa's stern wife.

John Michael Higgins is Willie the elf - only it's not really John Michael Higgins, but John Michael Higgins' face awkwardly, stupidly superimposed on the body of a little person. The special effects in this movie look like they cost about five bucks. Maybe Warner Bros. got them on sale.

The very talented and sneaky-hot Elizabeth Banks (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Invincible, Slither) is Santa's Little Helper, who probably spends most of her screen time wondering why her significant comic talents are being wasted on a non-written non-character. Seriously, this woman deserves to be a star.

The surprise of the cast - simply because he so rarely appears in movies anymore - is Kevin Spacey as Clyde Northcut, who's trying to shut down the North Pole and put Santa out of a job. He's grouchy and vindictive in all the right Kevin Spacey-type ways.

(Will he be touched by the warmth of the Christmas spirit at the end? I'll never tell!)

The actors do what they can, I suppose. But they can only go so far with such half-baked ideas. Fred Claus is in the same vein as Elf and The Santa Clause, only without the charm or patience of either.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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