CLAUS AND EFFECT

Santa Claus is the single greatest shill--except maybe for Bill Cosby--that the retail industry has ever had, and unlike Cosby, he comes dirt cheap. On the local level, minimum wage will usually cover it.

Of course, the fees run a little higher in Hollywood. No doubt it cost the makers of both Miracle on 34th Street and The Santa Clause a buck or two to engage Sir Richard Attenborough and Tim Allen, respectively, to play the jolly old elf.

Allen, a standup comedian who has become highly popular as the star of Home Improvement, doesn't suggest Father Christmas either physically or in his manner. Allen's comedy satirizes (and celebrates) masculinity, especially the male fixation with tools and gadgets, and there's a feigned macho surliness and distance to his general persona as a performer. The Santa Clause is built around the gag of a guy of this sort having to assume the genial role of Santa.

Allen plays a divorced executive for a toy company who, while spending Christmas Eve with his kid (Eric Lloyd), inadvertently puts Santa out of action--in fact, he apparently causes Santa's death, right in mid-delivery. When Allen tries on the suit, he instantly falls subject to the magical "clause" of the title, and learns that he must assume Santa's identity and duties--and waistline--for the next year.

Both Allen and the director, the episodic-TV vet John Pasquin (Roseanne, Home Improvement), are making their feature debuts. Pasquin stages a small, sweet gag, early on, about single fathers on Christmas Eve, and Allen and Lloyd's visit to the North Pole yields a few nice moments. David Krumholtz has a promising initial scene as a no-nonsense, all-business elf, but the character is disappointingly softened up in his subsequent scenes.

If The Santa Clause had stuck around the North Pole, and further exploited the possibilities of the toy workshop's gadgetry, or the comic literalism of demonstrating how, for instance, Santa can slide down the chimneys of chimneyless houses, it might have worked. It would, at least, have played to Allen's comedic strengths. Instead, the focus is on the kid's fixation with Dad's new gig, and on the custody problems that this stirs up between Allen, his ex (Wendy Crewson), and her new significant other (Judge Reinhold). Even if well-handled, this subject is a pretty sure-fire comedy-killer, and here it's painfully saccharine and clich‚d. Did the kid have to be so namby-pamby? The Santa Clause is a good example of how sentiment can wreck comedy--even sentimental comedy. Allen has a horrible signature shtick--a sort of simian grunting he uses to express satisfaction or excitement. Perhaps Pasquin's best contribution to The Santa Clause is that, mercifully, he only allows Allen to do this once.

Unlike Allen, Richard Attenborough seems, now that he's finally gone all the way gray and bearded and portly, made for the role of Santa Claus. He puts the twinkle he used in Jurassic Park into overdrive as Kriss Kringle in Les Mayfield's remake of Miracle on 34th Street, produced by John Hughes. It would be fun to show the kids who see this film the young Attenborough's classic turn as the vile Pinkie in the 1947 Brighton Rock, and tell them this is something from Santa's younger days. Attenborough actually comes across fairly well as Kriss. He speaks with polite, modest forcefulness when he makes the case for faith in Santa to Elizabeth Perkins, the single mother who has hired him as the resident Saint Nick for a Manhattan department store. And he has a thoroughly charming moment near the end, when his claim to authentic Santahood lands him in court--a live reindeer is led into the courtroom, and Kriss bursts into a huge, balmy grin of pleasure, as at the sight of a really close friend.

Apart from Attenborough, however, this version of Miracle (the third, at least) is curiously somber, with shadowy, deep-toned cinematography and actors murmuring at each other--it might have been directed by Sidney Lumet. As the child skeptic Kriss must convince, Mara Wilson is just another lisping movie moppet. Most snobbishly, the film turns the villains--the executives of a discount-store chain--into satanic schemers. Evidently, we're meant to think that the angels run the stores with high markups.

The courtroom scenes aren't funny (the reindeer episode excepted), nor do they have much urgency, and the legal argument by which the handsome lawyer (Dylan McDermott) establishes the possibility that Kriss is who he claims to be is disturbingly theocratic. This much can be said for Mayfield and cinematographer Julio Macat, though: They know how to present Perkins. This lovely actress has never looked lovelier--in every shot, no matter where she's standing, her hair picks up a band of burnished gold light. For the record, my favorite movie Santa is David Huddleston in Jeannot Szwarc's 1985 Santa Claus. The movie, a Salkind production, was an overproduced mess, but Huddleston, a wonderful, witty character actor from Westerns, gave a quiet, low-key performance. In the middle of as phony a movie as one could find, Huddleston's Santa was a real person.

 
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