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.
In those rare incidences a sequel can actually be better than the original. Such is the case with X2: X-Men United where this time around the X-Men--including mind-benders Prof. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen); optically enhanced Scott/Cyclops (James Marsden); weather controller Storm (Halle Berry); Rogue (Anna Paquin) aptly named newcomers Bobby/Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and John/Pyro (Aaron Stanford); and last but not least the hunky yet steely Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman)--have their work cut out for them trying to keep the peace between the human and mutant races. After a teleporting mutant assailant known as Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) attacks the White House relations between mutants and humans take a turn for the worse starting an anti-mutant movement. The movement is fueled by baddie scientist William Stryker (Brian Cox) who bears a grudge against mutants and his henchwoman Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu) both of whom have a mysterious connection to Wolverine's past. They seek to wipe out all the mutants on Earth by manipulating Xavier and his all-powerful machine Cerebro--a machine that can locate and even destroy every mutant and/or human on the planet in mere moments using mind power. Stryker is in for a fight though. Militant mutants the iron-clad Magneto (Ian McKellen) and morph-happy Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) join forces with the X-Men to stop this madman--but of course they have their own agendas. Can the X-Men repair the rift in mutant/human co-existence? Or is war imminent? Guess we'll have to wait until X3.
X2 does a nice job giving its comic book heroes and villains more of an emotional core than in the first X-Men. The relationships have deepened and are further explored with Jackman's haunted Logan/Wolverine looking for clues to his past still a standout. Janssen another standout gets more to chew on as Jean whose triangle with Logan and Scott grows more complicated and her character arc takes a surprising turn. But will somebody please write Halle Berry out of this franchise? They say her blonde wig was improved for the sequel but it's as unbelievable as her acting. As for the kids Paquin and Ashmore sweetly play out Rogue and Bobby's budding love story but its Stanford's sullen John who holds the most interest as you see his resentment toward humans growing and luring him to the dark side. In the villains' corner Cox plays Stryker as stonily evil as he can while Romijn-Stamos seems to have a lot more fun as the ultra-cool Mystique even getting to shed the blue paint in one scene and simply use her feminine wiles to get what she wants. Cumming too seems to enjoy being blue as the bible quoting German-accented Nightcrawler who really isn't so bad after all (and has one of the snazzier entrances in the movie). But the most compelling relationship by far has to be between Xavier and Magneto. British thesps Stewart and McKellen portray the two as the old friends they are but whose disparaging views on how mutants and humans should interact has torn them apart giving the film some dramatic weight.
With the original X-Men director Bryan Singer had the dubious task of introducing all of the Marvel comic book's attributes and characters in a way that would appease rabid fans and newbies while also creating a compelling movie with a beginning middle and end. The result was adequate but a tad muddled and cartoonish. With X2 however Singer is able to fine-tune those characters and delve further into the story's universal theme: ridding the world of xenophobia and creating a peaceful co-existence. The three-tiered points of view--from Magneto's defiantly anti-human stance to Stryker's anti-mutant attempts at genocide and Xavier's hopes to find a happy middle ground--parallels today's political climate and actually makes you ponder the world's affairs even while you are watching the very cool very mutant-esque action. X2 leaves you wanting more to find out what is going to happen next to these people. Honestly if there is a war between mutants and humans who do you think is going to win? If only I could use powers of telepathy…