Iron Man 2 Jon Favreau’s much-anticipated follow-up to his breakthrough 2008 blockbuster is less a comic book flick than it is a superhero version of Arthur the Oscar-nominated 1981 comedy that starred Dudley Moore as a drunken wise-cracking dilettante. In his second turn as Tony Stark Robert Downey Jr. recasts the billionaire inventor as the Dean Martin of industrialists strutting from one star-studded event to another on a bacchanalian victory tour dishing out choice one-liners and stirring up minor controversies for his exasperated babysitters Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and James "Rhodey" Rhodes (Don Cheadle) to quell. Whether gloating about his achievements at a defense industry expo upbraiding Senators during a congressional hearing or getting wasted and donning his armored powersuit to play DJ at his birthday party there's no telling what kind of madcap mischief Tony Stark will get himself into next!
The Tony Stark Comedy Tour for what it’s worth is a supremely entertaining ride (credit screenwriter Justin Theroux at the very least with crafting the genre’s most quotable film of all time) but I’m fairly certain Iron Man 2 is supposed to be an action film not the Marvel Follies Variety Show. Surely there must be a supervillain lurking in the shadows a frighteningly powerful menace preparing to unleash its destructive might upon the world?
There is — well kind of. The primary antagonist of Iron Man 2 Mickey Rourke's hulking Ivan Vanko (aka Whiplash) is certainly a fearsome beast baring his blinged-out grill and electrified tentacles but he gets all of five minutes of meaningful screen time in the sequel — hardly enough to establish him as a worthy foe for the great Iron Man. Perhaps producers found Rourke’s chosen dialect learned from John Malkovich's Rounders School of Exaggerated Russian Accents (“I vant my bort!” he furiously declares when separated from his pet parrot) to be less compelling in post-production.
More likely they became enamored with Sam Rockwell in the role of Justin Hammer Stark’s resentful business rival and Whiplash’s principal financial backer. It’s certainly understandable. Exuding the hubris and insecurity of a sardonic Mark Cuban (but capable of amusing us with more than just an underachieving basketball team) his performance is easily the best of the film surpassing even that of the great Downey. (Which makes perfect fodder for conspiracy theorists who wonder why Rockwell was the only member of the main cast not to get his own poster.)
The only problem is Rockwell’s Hammer is a venture capitalist not a comic book supervillain and every second he spends on the screen — as enjoyable as it is — is a second that could have been devoted to dimensionalizing Rourke’s character or crafting a badly-needed action sequence to enliven the talky second act.
It’s little wonder then that Stark continues with his feckless self-destructive ways unconcerned with the threat posed by the Hammer/Whiplash collaboration. He's got bigger problems to worry about — namely his inability to find a suitable replacement for palladium the substance inside the Arc Reactor that powers both his suit and his heart and which also happens to be slowly killing him.
Thankfully Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. arrive at his compound to stage a kind of intervention bearing a powerful dual-pronged Deus Ex Machina device that instantly wrests our hero from his para-suicidal stupor — just in time to build the upgraded powersuit he’ll need to thwart the army of powerful robot drones that Whiplash is about to let loose upon on the unsuspecting citizens of Queens New York. Whew! Favreau steps up the action and delivers a suitably big finish but don't blink when Iron Man and Whiplash meet on the battlefield because you might just miss it.
Given that Iron Man 2’s director and writer have both spent the bulk of their movie careers employed as actors it comes as little surprise that they chose to focus the action on Downey and Rockwell as the two rank head and shoulders above the rest of the cast. I just wish they found room in between the one-liners for a few more explosions.
Playing second fiddle to a more famous sibling can be rough. Just ask Fred Claus (Vaughn) a regular guy who has had to grow up under the shadow of his little brother Nicholas Claus (Paul Giamatti) aka Santa. That’s a big shadow to say the least both figuratively and literally. As an adult Fred has pretty much steered clear of his family but when he finds himself in dire need of some fast cash he calls his brother. Pleased as punch to hear from him Nicholas nonetheless makes him a deal: If he comes up to the North Pole for a visit and to help out the few days before Christmas then Fred can have the money. Fred reluctantly agrees and soon he’s being whisked off in Santa’s sleigh by head elf Willie (John Michael Higgins). But once Fred gets to the North Pole nothing seems to go right and soon he is the cause of much chaos--which unbeknownst to Fred causes Nicholas even more stress since his North Pole operation is one step away from being shut down by a cold-hearted efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey). Can Fred quit being bitter in time to save his brother’s livelihood? Of course he can. Hmmm Vince Vaughn minus the R-rated Wedding Crashers/Old School irreverence? It’s a stretch. Seeing the comic actor playing it PG is a little weird but you might enjoy how Vaughn infuses his unique energy into Fred Claus. From getting all the elves to boogie down in Santa’s workshop to going on one rant after another (on his brother: “He’s a clown a megalomaniac a fame junkie!”) to pilfering money on the street and then being chased by Salvation Army Santas it’s all good. Giamatti too seems a little out of his comfort zone as the saintly St. Nick. The actor who usually plays such endearing sad sacks has already played against type to great effect this year as the maniacal bad guy in Shoot ‘Em Up but he isn't nearly as successful in doing the flipside of that in Fred Claus. And what the hell is Kevin Spacey doing in this? As the villain of the film he fills the shoes nicely but he is almost too good at it (natch) for such a feel-good family film. Even Higgins--a character actor who is usually so hilarious in films such as The Break Up and all of Christopher Guest’s movies—has to shed the cheekiness and sugar himself up for Fred Claus. There’s also Rachel Weisz as Fred’s beleaguered girlfriend (you heard right) and Kathy Bates as the Claus boys’ mother who always sees Fred as inferior to her other son to fill out a cast of big names doing family fare. Director David Dobkin is a Vince Vaughn favorite having directed him in Wedding Crashers and Clay Pigeons but like his muse Dobkin seems a little out of place guiding this material. Granted Dobkin creates a pretty magical North Pole complete with an entire city of little dwellings a Frosty Tavern and a huge domed Santa’s Workshop. The montage of Fred delivering presents on Christmas Eve—falling down chimneys stuffing cookies in his face zooming around in the sleigh—is also well done. But overall Fred Claus is a Vaughn vehicle—even as sugary sweet and family-friendly as it is--and all Dobkin really does is turn the camera on and let the man do his stuff. Dan Fogelman's script is also so very bland full of any number of holes and only picks up once Vaughn starts to improvise. Bottom line: If you’re looking to take the kids to a sweet Christmas movie and are a Vince Vaughn fan then Fred Claus is for you.