Tuesday, December 30, 2008

FRED CLAUS: A Late Holiday Review (Lede Only)

If one were to limit themselves to Christmas films released in the 90s and early 2000s as the foundation for judging the merits of Christmas movies as a genre, one would have found them wanting. Very few of the movies are classics. Crass commercial pieces like Jingle All the Way, misguided narratives like Jack Frost, combined with the absent-minded parents of Home Alone and the meanness of the characters in Deck the Halls, might lead a viewer to believe that Hollywood film-makers have lost the ability to make a touching Christmas film.

One could argue that many of the "going to visit the quirky family" Christmas films are a reaction to memories of syrupy/saccharin Christmas films of yore. Possibly a combination of this reaction with the cold reality that most of us are not blessed with the idyllic families of Christmas movies past. Never mind that the families actually depicted in the classic films are often broken -- like the single mother in Miracle on 34th Street -- or enduring significant hardships like the Bailey's in It's a Wonderful Life. There seems to be some part of the post 1950s film-making gestalt that is resistant to making movies that are fun and heartwarming.

Naturally, there are wonderful exceptions. About a Boy and Love Actually present lovely narratives that capture the holiday spirit without being too sugary sweet. And Jon Favreau's modern masterpiece Elf manages to successfully bridge the gap between adolescent fart comedy and truly capturing the Christmas spirit. Even an overly commercial franchise like The Santa Claus can have moments, as seen in the second film in the trilogy (avoid the others), where the value of the season and the warmth of giving can be seen.

Before this introduction is misunderstood, this is not a discussion of any so-called "War on Christmas" -- which is just so much blustering attempting to reignite/fuel existing culture wars. Anyone who has read the Holiday Movie Marathon list below should be well aware that isn't what is going on here. This is a conversation about the making of quality Christmas movie fare. A phenomenon that seems to happen less often of late than TCM makes me believe once was the norm. One finds it hard to imagine a Jingle All the Way being directed by Ernst Lubitsch.

It was films like Love Actually and Elf that made me believe that maybe Hollywood -- yes I know Love Actually is British, but when talking about film one almost always blames/praises Hollywood -- had finally outgrown its obsessive avoidance of potentially corny fare. Hollywood, like most modern comic book fans, seems to want to appear to favor "sophisticated" narratives over "simplistic" and "corny" ones. The same observation applies to most modern film critics as well. Never mind how moving the final scene of The Shop Around the Corner is, it seems they would prefer Alfred Kralik spend Christmas shooting up heroin in an alleyway while freezing to death instead of finding the woman of his dreams. One might argue that this resistance to "corn" goes beyond the Christmas season, but that is not the purpose of this background.

As was written above, Elf directed by Jon Favreau is one of the films that made this humble film viewer believe that there was room for the heartfelt Christmas comedy. Last November, Vince Vaughn followed in his friend's footsteps and starred in a Christmas comedy film. The name of the film was Fred Claus and it was released on DVD this past November 25, just in time for this year's holiday season. Vince Vaughn is an actor who has given audiences some wonderful performances in both dramas and comedies. The Break-Up is one of the better films of the past few years, and Dodgeball is a comedic gem. Vaughn is, for lack of a better comparison, our generation's version of Dean Martin. A giant Dean Martin who doesn't have any albums, but Dean Martin none the less.

The question then stands, "is Fred Claus typical Hollywood cynicism or does it have 'heart' like the best of Christmas films?"


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