Film Reviews

Santa's Brittle Helper

Banking on the career choices of Vince Vaughn garners increasingly erratic returns, which is ironic, given that he has finally settled on (or surrendered to) a consistent onscreen persona: his own bad self. Uneasy from the beginning, Vaughn avoided the superstardom that seemed within reach after Swingers by trying on the action hero, indie pinup, dark drama dude, leading man, slapstick punter, and surprisingly competent supporting player. With 2003's Old School, Vaughn resurrected the jive-talking good-time guy, which, with slight variations, he has ridden to big-budget, comedy success.

Vaughn's leading role in Fred Claus, a PG holiday movie tailored for the SUV set, is something of a departure: Teaming again with Wedding Crashers director David Dobkin, Vaughn delves into the preteen demo, riding the success of reinvented holiday films like Elf, and hoping that parents will enjoy the added value of seeing their favorite wiseass wreaking havoc in Toyland.

Lacking the effortless, absurdist je ne say what of fellow crank Bill Murray (who tried his hand at Christmas fare with Scrooged), the demonic, physical comedy of Ben Stiller (amassing kid cred with Night at the Museum), and the freestyling innocence of Will Ferrell (Elf), Vaughn brings to the kiddy party the same thing he brings to the adult party: a 6-foot-5 attitude problem. Whether a giant man with an extensive flannel collection and a big mouth will have crossover (or under) appeal is anyone's guess.

Fred Claus begins with the birth of Nicholas Claus in a medieval Neverland, where everything is subject to warm and crackly voice-over narration. Dubbed a saint for his sweetness by his mother (Kathy Bates), baby Nicholas is the immediate bane of his older brother Fred's existence. Centuries go by, but, due to a fairy-tale loophole, the Claus brothers seem to stay the age of Vaughn (as Fred) and Paul Giamatti (as Nicholas, a.k.a. Santa, in a sweetly observed performance). With his triple-decker eye bags and black skullcap, Vaughn makes a convincing no-good, sour-grapes sibling. Fred's a repo man in Chicago. He's also a bad, birthday-forgetting boyfriend to Wanda (Rachel Weisz). And a crook: In scheming to raise enough money to buy a restaurant, he bilks some Salvation Army Santas and winds up in the slammer.

That sequence, which finds Vaughn booking through a Toys "R" Us with a passel of angry Santas in tow, is the first real indication that this is a children's movie. He's funniest, of course, when using only his mouth, particularly in exchanges with a stray kid who hangs out at his apartment: Fred badmouths Santa and implores the youth to look out only for himself. Thankfully, Fred's famous little brother has a different view and offers to give Fred the seed money he needs if he will come up to the North Pole and help out with the Christmas rush.

Or make that, X-mas rush, for this is an almost completely secular film, whose one viable idea (about the greed inherent in today's children asking for 15 toys instead of one) is dropped as quickly as it is raised. Santa's workshop is having a hard time keeping up with the increased demand, and this has occasioned a visit from a niggling "efficiency expert" named Clyde (Kevin Spacey), who has sibling issues of his own; Spacey is actually scarier here than he was as Lex Luthor, and there's a nice bit of Superman business to boot. Elizabeth Banks plays Santa's Little Helper, her zany charge annoyingly corked in favor of the eye candy quotient, and Fred finds an ally for his save-the-day duties in an elf named Willy (John Michael Higgins).

Dobkin peppers the film with stock "comic" sequences (the teach-a-square-to-groove scene from Hitch and the dance montage from Crashers), draining what little novelty there is in placing the Vaughn persona so far out of water. The exceptional cast feels like an embarrassment of riches for a script this thin. As it is, a generally innocuous bit of holiday schlock gets junked up with a mushy-minded moral (there are no naughty kids, apparently), slick sentimentality, and an overreaching finale, in which Dobkin finally ditches the jingle-bell jukebox to misuse the power of a bona fide hymn. He plays it over a touching montage about the true meaning of X-mas: kids tearing presents open with their teeth.

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Michelle Orange is a regular film contributor at Voice Media Group and its film partner, the Village Voice. VMG publications include LA Weekly, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press and Dallas Observer.