The Claus That Won't Fly

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Vince Vaughn in Fred Claus

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Fred is one of at least four movies this year — the others being Mr. Brooks, You Kill Me and Things We Lost in the Fire — that send the main character to an AA-type addiction meeting. This group here is Siblings Anonymous, and gets a few laughs from the appearance of underachieving brothers Frank Stallone, Stephen Baldwin and Roger Clinton. (I think I know where the members of the striking Writers Guild will be heading after their time on the picket line. They'll be attending a Siblings Anonymous meeting, when they're not at Children's Anonymous.)

3. Elf Abuse

"Every gift handmade by elves." That's the motto at the North Pole. Just about everyone but the Claus family security force is undersize. Midgets (mostly from Russia) man the assembly lines. The village's Security Force comprises three dwarfs who look like Munchkinland's Lollipop Guild, but tougher; they're the Blackwater of little people.

The film gets some stray buoyancy from John Michael Higgins, familiar from Arrested Development and the Christopher Guest improv comedies. ("Oh, he's always good.") Higgins plays Willie, the head elf, who's in love with a normal-size blond cutie and, after some romantic blind alleys, winds up with her. Parents are advised to ignore their more precocious kids' questions about how that little thing goes into that big thing. But they may have to tangle with workplace issues on the North Pole assembly line. Either the elves are making the generic toys (a bike, a sled, a dreidel) that few kids ask for these days, or Santa is deep into copyright infrinement.

I have a scenario for the never-to-be-made Fred Claus II: the elves unionize, realizing that they get paid even less than the 12-year-old Chinese girls who paint lead onto American kids' toys. If Willie and his pals were to call a work stoppage this Dec. 23, the labor movement could score its first quick victory in decades.

But even their employer is exploited: nagged by his parents, badgered by Fred, threatened with extinction by the Spacey character. The undercoat of sadness in Giamatti's performance has a number of explanation. Maybe it's because he read the script; or because as Richardson uncharitably reveals, "He's a closet eater." Or maybe Santa has heard the news about global warming, and is anxiously anticipates the North Pole's first snowless Christmas.

4. cornography, n. A type of motion picture that shamelessly and ineptly truckles in sentiment, giving viewers the sense that their nobler emotions have been corrupted, violated, pornographized.

"There's no naughty kids, Nick," says born-again Fred. "Every kid deserves a present on Christmas." His scheme is to mass-produce one toy for each gender: baseball bats for all the little boys (so they can smash things), hula hoops for all the little girls (so they can learn to wiggle their hips). In 10 years they'll be able to star in, or at least appreciate, Judd Apatow comedies.

Paving the soundtrack are a dozen well-chosen seasonal favorites: the Ronettes' "Sleigh Ride," Johnny Mercer's "Jingle Bells," Doris Day's "Here Comes Santa Claus," Elvis' "Santa Claus Is Back In Town," Sinead O'Connor's "Silent Night," Guy Lombardo doing "Auld Lang Syne." My guess is that the movie will disappear, the CD (which hits the stores Nov. 20) will hang around for a few more Christmases. It has something to please every kid from... well, from 48 to 80.

In the end, Fred seizes the reins from his ailing brother and makes the Christmas Eve round-the-world tour himself. He brings the joy of getting to every child, including the Afro-American orphan, and there is joy in every land, and at the North Pole. It's all meant to bring edifying moisture to audiences' eyes. The more susceptible moviegoers may shed a tear or two, but they risk hating themselves in the morning. On the upside, they don't have to wait to hate Fred Claus.

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