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Fred Claus

(2007) ** Pg
115 min. Warner Bros. Pictures Distribution. Director: David Dobkin. Cast: Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti, Kevin Spacey, John Michael Higgins, Elizabeth Banks.


Entertainment Weekly’s 2007 Holiday Movie Preview highlighted different features of then-upcoming films: The Director and Star for Margot at the Wedding, the Screenwriter for Juno, the music for There Will Be Blood, and…The Set for Fred Claus. And that about says it all—three cheers for the craftspeople who built the set, but filming a movie on it was probably a mistake. For a disappointing dose of so-called holiday cheer, watch Vince Vaughn gelded in this deeply conventional Christmas movie, obviously inspired by his old Swingers buddy Jon Favreau making a mint on Elf.

Vaughn plays Fred, Santa’s black sheep brother. Momma (Kathy Bates) always liked saintly Nick best, which has remained a thorn in Fred's side for centuries (all of the Clauses and their mates are magically immortal). The script positions Santa (Paul Giamatti) as a man who has used those centuries to turn into a neurotic pleaser who, despite the proddings of Mrs. Claus (Miranda Richardson), avoids conflict. When Fred gets into money trouble, Nick gets up the gumption to use his brother's need as leverage: he'll lend the money if Fred comes to the North Pole to help out this Christmas season and to visit the family. Trouble brews not only in family dynamics primed to detonate, but in the arrival of a villainous efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey) with the power to shut down Santa's operation.

Seen through the undemanding eyes of a child, Fred Claus functions pretty well. It has a good, relatable hook, and actors who are funny, resonant, and crisp in their performances (including Rachel Weisz as Fred's long-suffering girlfriend, Elizabeth Banks as a pretty polar worker, and John Michael Higgins as Fred's new buddy, the head elf). Vaughn's oft-improvisational motormouth routine has yet to grow old, and perhaps it never will: it's a weak script's secret weapon. The development of the story is predictable, though children will be more interested in the shiny trimmings of that set and, more interestingly, the characters: the sibling rivalry between Saint Nick and Fred and the wish-fulfilling relationship between audience surrogate Slam (Bobb'e J. Thompson)--a troubled child in Fred's neighborhood--and cool rascal Fred.

On the other hand, though the film teases questions that would spark a child’s imagination, they’re all dropped like hot potatoes in favor of cheap infusions of dancing, slapstick, and what for me is a dealbreaker in a live-action movie that's not about cartoons: the grating use of cartoon sound effects. More on whether or not Santa is a kind of fascist tyrant would have been interesting (the naughty/nice paradigm is nominally explored), as well as actually dealing with the implications of characters who are immortal. The dynamic between Nick and Fred starts out interesting and twistedly funny, but rapidly devolves once the two are together again at the North Pole and wind up brawling in the snow. Sorry, folks: the teaser trailer was a better film than the film.

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Aspect ratios: 2.4:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 3

Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround

Street date: 11/25/2008

Distributor: Warner Home Video

Warner sends a pretty terrific transfer down the chimney for Fred Claus on Blu-ray: colors are vibrant and true, detail is substantial, and despite the often stylized color and lighting, there's good contrast, good black level, and no distracting bleeding. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack provides satisfactory aural support.

A commentary with director David Dobkin allows Dobkin to play cheerleader for his film, providing plenty of making-of detail, explaining the thinking behind certain scenes and his intention to give the comedy emotional weight, and demonstrating his amused satisfaction in the finished product.

"Sibling Rivalry" (9:27, HD) focuses on the film's main theme, with comments by Dobkin, Vince Vaughn, producer/story contributor Jessie Nelson, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, John Michael Higgins, Stephen Baldwin, Roger Clinton, and Frank Stallone. "Meet the Other Claus" (13:04, HD) continues the behind-the-scenes vibe, featuring Dobkin, Giamatti, Miranda Richardson, producer Joel Silver, Nelson, Bobb'e J. Thompson, Rachel Weisz, Vaughn, Higgins, production designer Allan Cameron discussing the characters and production, with plenty of behind-the-scenes glimpses.

"Pause for Claus: Elves Tell All" (8:59, HD), a fun mock-featurette about how elves are real, features the elf cast, led by Higgins, as well as Banks, Richardson, and Silver. Vaughn and Giamatti get their turn to play in five brief "Vince and Paul Fireside Chats" (4:10, SD) from AOL's "Unscripted" series. Thirteen "Deleted Scenes" (25:30 with "Play All" option, SD) provide a surprising amount of cut material from the cutting-room floor, and there's a "Ludacrismas Music Video" (1:36, HD).

Two additional DVDs house a Digital Copy for portable playback and a Blu-ray exclusive DVD game, Fred Claus: Race to Save Christmas. There are worse ways for a kid to while away a few holiday hours in the living room than watching some good actors banter in the high-concept Fred Claus.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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