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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
O Brother, Why Art Thou So Good?
by Betty Jo Tucker

Sibling rivalry raises its ugly head in Fred Claus, an early Christmas treat pairing Paul Giamatti and Vince Vaughn as Santa and his jealous older brother.  More fun for parents than for young children, this new take on Santa’s family life features some very funny scenes showing the boys’ mother, who obviously never heard of Dr. Spock, violating important childrearing advice, thereby setting the stage for the amusing chaos that ensues. Because this holiday comedy takes too long in getting to the colorful North Pole Christmas activity, it probably won’t grab the interest of youngsters right away. But many adult viewers will be drawn in immediately by Vaughn’s frenetic performance as a man with serious “brother” issues.

Lavishing parental attention on one child at the expense of another isn’t beneficial to either youngster, but Fred (Vaughn) and Nicholas (Giamatti) have a mother (Kathy Bates) who just can’t help herself. Throughout their lives, she constantly chides Fred for not being “more like Nicholas.” And who can blame her?  After all, Nicholas is so good, he’s practically a saint -- while Fred has great difficulty controlling his bitterness toward his pudgy sibling. When the two grow up -- you guessed it -- Nicholas becomes Santa Claus, and Fred wants nothing at all to do with Christmas. Until this year, that is. What explains Fred’s sudden interest in Nicholas’ North Pole operation? Money, of course. Fred wants $50,000 to close a certain deal, so he agrees to help his brother during the busy Christmas season.

Nicholas needs all the assistance he can get, for “the Board” has called in a Scrooge-like efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey) who wants to fire the elves and close down Santa’s business. Unfortunately, Fred’s unique brand of help backfires, causing everything to become extremely bleak indeed. Finally, as we watch Fred try to make up for his mistakes, we can’t help cheering him on. 

Besides Vaughn’s excellent turn here, Giamatti comes across as a convincing Santa. Sometimes it’s hard to understand his dialogue through the beard and moustache, but he looks quite lovable -- and we worry right along with him when things go wrong at the North Pole. As the villain, Spacey arouses our curiosity about why his character is so serious and mean. (When we find out, it’s a delightful surprise!) Other cast members provide strong support, especially Miranda Richardson as Santa’s protective wife and Rachel Weisz as Fred’s frustrated girlfriend. Ludicrus evokes laughs in his brief appearance as an elf obsessed with the song “Here Comes Santa Claus.”

Although focusing on the dysfunctional relationship between Fred and Nicholas, Fred Claus boasts many of the traditional things children enjoy in holiday movies, including flying reindeer, lots of elves, Santa’s workshop and cheery Christmas background music. There’s also a fascinating “snow globe” which allows viewers to see who’s being naughty or nice. Still, the highlight of the film shows Fred attending a “Siblings Anonymous” meeting. This depiction of several brothers seeking help is strictly for grown-ups -- and it’s one of the funniest scenes of the year.

(Released by Warner Bros. Pictures and rated “PG” for mild language and some rude humor.)    

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