Look, it’s hardly imaginative for me to admit It’s a Wonderful Life and Alastair Sim’s 1951 Scrooge as my favorite Christmas films. And yes, Elf would also register up there in my top five as well. I know, I’m following the herd with all three choices, but so be it.
For me, Nicolas Cage’s largely neglected Family Man (2000) would also join that jostling holiday cinematic quintet. It’s a terrific movie that drives home the kind of fundamental values that are supposed to be celebrated every December 25th. It additionally, by the way, puts paid to any sneering nonsense that Cage — his last decade’s filmography notwithstanding — can’t act.
A relative newcomer to that rarified December-tide company? 2007’s Fred Claus, starring Vince Vaughn. My brother recommended it several years back, I heeded his suggestion and it expeditiously jumped to must-see status as part of my annual Christmas tradition.
I’ve never been an especial Vince Vaughn booster. His typically coarse, salacious brand of comedy isn’t my cup of eggnog. And, sure enough, Fred Claus is silly, even manifestly preposterous … ahem, it’s a flick built around the Santa Claus fable, mind you; I get it; magical realism. That allowed, if you’re not willing to buy into that predicate for a couple hours of fictional seasonal entertainment, then by all means: don’t bother tuning in to Fred Claus.
On the other hand, for those up for a story about broken families and broken souls encountering the lovely power of forgiveness, emotional healing and relational restoration? Fred Claus is your ticket. The scene involving a “Siblings Anonymous” support group makes me chuckle — and laugh out loud — upon every viewing. A penultimate segment involving “The Snow Globe” has become one of my treasured seems-like-I’ve-got-something-in-my-eye celluloid moments. I have a similar, getting-choked-up reaction to an earlier sequence involving a loathsomely despicable bad guy’s transformative encounter with a Superman cape. And of course, the casting of the compulsively watchable Paul Giamatti as Fred’s rotund, white-bearded — and more renowned –younger sibling? Positively inspired.
One aspect that makes the delightfulness of Fred Claus so attention-grabbing is how stomach-churningly awful is another Christian-themed Vince Vaughn-vehicle, released a mere one year later. I’m referring to 2008’s truly offensively, nose-crinklingly off-putting Four Christmases. It’s a courtroom- worthy example of how Hollywood can be counted on to feloniously filch those things that are supposed to be elegant, pure and inspiring and corrupt them into something else altogether: in this case a lousy, tasteless, crass piece of filmic dreck. For nearly eighty-nine minutes the plot subjects viewers to a menagerie of flatly loutish characters — including the shallow main couple (the already mentioned Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon), a theatrically bosomy sister, cruel, misanthropic father, dirty-talking grandmother (a genuinely tedious movie trope that really needs to be trash-canned), ditzy, brain-washed church-goer, etc., etc., etc.
Four Christmases then attempts, in its final few beats, a snatch of heartwarming redemption — but by then I felt like I needed a bath. This comedy’s stab at inspiration lands like a crapulous St. Nick tumbling off a roof; or a rusty quarter unearthed in a steaming, gallon-sized mound of reindeer droppings.
How on earth did the producers manage to coerce Tinsel Town heavyweights like Jon Voight, Robert DuVall and Sissy Spacek to participate in this big-screen, one-horse-open-sleigh pile up? Must have been some kinda paycheck for those three thespians …
At some point over the past month, AMC has screened both these flicks on the same evening, back-to-back — only serving to emphasize their whip-lashing juxtaposition. It also reminds me of a ground-level, biblical observation about human beings; one on exhibit every day, everywhere: People, originally created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:26) are capable of impressive and worthwhile acts; they’re also more than up to debasing themselves, falling squarely on their faces. Vince Vaughn, for instance, who’s managed to be a part of Christmas movie fare that presently enriches my yearly experience, also churned out a waste of holiday time that I saw one time — one time too many, that is.
The theological term is Imago Dei: men and women fashioned to manifest aspects of their glorious Creator. It’s a towering concept, freighted with bracing but sobering responsibility. People are not cosmic accidents, but beings with vast abilities, huge, God-endowed potential, designed for meaningful existence.
Tragically, like the painted masterpiece of an incomparable artistic master which has been dropped in a muddy puddle and run over by a bicycle, humanity — both collectively and individually — has been despoiled by their disobedience, marred by sin. Commonly referred to as “The Fall of Mankind”, this catastrophe has created a situation in which the Great God’s reflection is still present in people … well, sort of; Fragments of it are recognizable, but now woefully deficiently.
The illustrious Andrew Pope diagnosed the dilemma nearly three-hundred years ago in his Essay on Man: Of his fellow-man he penned, “A being darkly wise, and rudely great: … In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast; … Created half to rise, and half to fall; Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all; … The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!”
On a minimalist, earthbound level? Any soul can produce that which is worthwhile (Matthew 7:11); at least periodically. All good things come from the hand of a beneficent Creator (James 1:17), and He often works through even actively wicked individuals to create, invent, innovate, repair, provide that which is necessary or praiseworthy, which will benefit others. That same useful person, however, can simultaneously defy the Righteous Judge of the Universe; knot-headedly flouting His commandments and principles; engaging in the basest shortcomings, the vilest perfidies.
It’s Vince Vaughn in Fred Claus — then, twelve months following, in Four Christmases.
It’s also why, around this time every early winter, multitudes pause to remember a loving God Who became a baby born in a manger. That miraculous Child matured into a miraculous Man — the Son of God — Who’d die in place of ruined and sinful humanity. He now calls all mortals, everywhere, to repent, to believe on Him for forgiveness, for restoration, for new life; to live for Him (2 Corinthians 5:15).
Jesus stands the only solution for the Fred Claus/Four Christmases dilemma.
The festival celebrating the historic event of His arrival on the planet serves as backdrop for Fred Claus.
It does the same for Four Christmases … unfortunately.