Late August/early September is known as a dumping ground for Hollywood a block of weekends for movies that don't fit into studios' strategical timeline. This could be for quality reasons ("when else are we going to put out this crappy movie?") or in the case of The Debt the movie might be too straightforward for its own good.
Oscar-winning director John Madden's (Shakespeare in Love) espionage thriller walks the fine line between action entertainment and award-season bait—leaving it in the unmarketable limbo known as "solid adult entertainment." The film a remake of a 2007 Israeli drama of the same name starts in 1997 centering on former-Mossad agent Rachel (Helen Mirren) and her two former teammates David (Ciaran Hinds) and Rachel's ex-husband Stephan (Tom Wilkinson). The trio cross paths once again with the publishing of a book written by Rachel and Stephen's daughter recounting the team's daring (and semi-successful) mission to kidnap and incarcerate a Nazi war criminal in 1965. It's with this solidifying of fame that the true events of their mission begin to trickle out.
The movie quickly flashes back to 1965 picking up with Rachel David and Stephen (now played by rising starlett Jessica Chastain Avatar's Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas) at the start of their mission. Like any group of gorgeous people forced to live in confined spaces romance begins to blossom with Rachel warming to the introverted David and Stephen waiting for the opportune moment to sweep her off her feet. While the trio prepares for the kidnapping—with your standard array of sleuthing calculated scheduling and intel-gathering—their relationships complicate giving The Debt a bit more depth than your run-of-the-mill Mission: Impossible-style spy movie. When it comes time to bag the Nazi everything seems to have fallen into place.
But unlike the stories told by their '90s counterparts the three agents find themselves in a stickier situation than expected. WIth one misstep the tension between the triangle boils and Madden to play games with our expectations. The script by Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class writers Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman twists and turns bouncing back and forth between Mirren and Chastain's Rachel with ease. The spectacle in The Debt isn't delivered by elaborate set pieces but rather by the two actresses' performances. The duo without sharing a single scene click and unfold a complete arc beginning with Rachel's pride-filled aspirations to her chaotic downfall to Mirren's newfound mission to cover up the truth. Even when the movie dawdles (and it does around the hour mark) Mirren and Chastain keep us on board.
The other members of the ensemble don't have too much meat to chew on but Worthington impresses nonetheless tackling a character that's a complete 180 from his usual action-oriented muscle roles. His young David gives weight to the mission inhabiting a sense of devotion that explodes when he finally engages their Nazi hostage in a battle of words. Csoaks as young Stephen is just the slick realist prick the movie needs to make the team's downfall frighteningly disastrous and in turn the events of the present that much more dire.
The Debt doesn't have the expansive harrowing scope of Steven Spielberg's serious spy movie Munich but for a movie that doesn't really have a place on the Hollywood slate it delivers a square serving of drama and sharp performances. It tells its story and does so with the right amount of flair.
At the end of the summer that's a welcome surprise.
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.