Elf Esteem 

Fred Claus flies off the rails. But Alison Eastwood's feature debut doesn't.

Fred Claus, older brother of Santa Claus, is having a rough time of it. Mind you, he's immortal like younger brother Nick and the whole Claus family, but for all that Fred (Vince Vaughn) hasn't made much of himself. When we meet him he's living in Chicago, working for a company called Repo A-Go-Go, repossessing flat-screen TVs from bratty teenagers. Fred's dream is to open an off-track betting parlor across the street from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange — evidently Fred never heard about their plans to close the trading floor and go digital — but in order to do that he needs $50,000 startup money.

Fred hits on the age-old scheme of dressing up in a Santa suit, ringing a bell on a street corner with a donation bucket, and keeping the proceeds for himself, but all the Salvation Army Santas in the vicinity chase him down and stomp him in the toy section of a department store. And did we mention that his romance with lovely meter maid Wanda (Rachel Weisz) isn't going so well? He lands in jail, and uses his last phone call to reach out to his estranged brother.

We're automatically cheering for poor Fred, because from all appearances he's a regular guy who needs a lucky break to help overcome some self-esteem issues. Being born in that Hobbit-style fairytale cottage in the forest to Mother Claus (Kathy Bates at her most overbearingly matronly) and growing up with brother Nick (Paul Giamatti) hasn't paid off for Fred. He's a shnook. He exists perpetually in the shadow of his charismatic younger brother, à la Fredo Corleone. The only person who seems to believe in him is Slam (Bobb'e J. Thompson), a little kid in his apartment building who drops in for a glass of milk once in a while. Brother Nick, against his better judgment and in spite of the misgivings of Mrs. Claus (Miranda Richardson), offers Fred a chance to raise the cash: come to the North Pole and help out during the busy Christmas season.

The North Pole is appropriately bizarre. In the first place, it's not melting. Benevolent dictator Nick sticks prodigal Fred with an entry-level job reading children's letters, and Fred has to share a tiny bunk bed with an elf named Willie (John Michael Higgins). A saturnine corporate type in a suit, Clyde Northcutt (Kevin Spacey), arrives in a helicopter and issues a threat. Kids' demands for presents are outstripping the elves' production capacity. If Nick and his helpers fail to produce enough toys by Christmas, "the Board" will shut down the entire operation and move it to the South Pole. That's right, Santa Claus is being outsourced.

Twenty years ago, Fred would have been played by Jim Belushi. In fact, since we're in the time machine, it's easy to picture Vaughn's Fred as his own character from Swingers ten years later, after too many mojitos. Director David Dobkin, who wrote the story with Jesse Nelson from which Dan Fogelman's screenplay emerged, handled Vaughn in Wedding Crashers and knows how to milk the actor's slack-adaisical physicality for cheap-but-filling laughs. Fred makes several good speeches, especially the one in which he tells the repossessed-TV brat how much better off she'll be without the big-screen tube (more exercise, better grades, a happier life, etc.).

Speaking of Belushi, the filmmakers should have tried to get him for one of Fred Claus' wittiest scenes — Fred's visit to the Siblings Anonymous support group, where overlooked siblings can safely vent their jealous frustrations. Frank Stallone, brother of Sylvester, is there (he got pummeled by Mickey Rourke in Barfly), as are Roger "I didn't want to be First Brother" Clinton and one of the Baldwins, I think it was Stephen.

As Nick/Santa, Giamatti has little to do besides pratfalls but still manages to convey patronizing amiability as the CEO of a factory full of elves. Richardson's Annette Claus has a few promising moments as the Bitch of the North in the early going. Please explain to us how Weisz' Wanda, with her pronounced English accent, secured a job in the Chicago Police Dept. Some critics have compared Spacey's unctuous Mr. Northcutt to his character in Glengarry Glen Ross, but in keeping with the Yuletide motif there's a better Spacey choice — 1994's The Ref, directed by the late Ted Demme, in which Spacey went fifteen rounds with Judy Davis in the screen's most horrible Christmas Eve dinner.

Fred Claus is harmless fun for kids and a congenial timewaster for adults. It's no improvement on Bad Santa, or National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, for that matter. But you'd be happier staying home and renting The Ref or The Nightmare Before Christmas — or better yet, seeing the latter film in its 3D digital re-release.

Two other fractured families figure in Rails & Ties, the directorial debut of Alison Eastwood. In this unassuming drama of small-scale tragedy and redemption, rookie Eastwood gets salt-of-the-earth performances from Kevin Bacon and Marcia Hay Harden as a glum, childless couple — taciturn Tom Stark drives a train, wife Megan is a nurse dying of breast cancer — whose fates change when the engineer's locomotive accidentally kills a distraught woman who has pulled her car onto a railroad crossing with her young son Davey (Miles Heizer) beside her. A few days later, the orphaned boy shows up at the Starks' door and things happen.

In common with her famous actor/filmmaker father, Ms. Eastwood seems to have an instinctual grasp of the petty grievances and triumphs of working-class American life. She gets the details right and lets Mickey Levy's screenplay take the characters to a better place without drawing undue attention to the process. It just happens, like life. Bacon's performance as buttoned-up union man Tom is so Clint-like we can only assume the actor and director intended it as an homage to the Man with No Name.


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