Picks and Pans Main: Screen
Tim Allen, David Krumholtz
Rip through the bright tinselly wrapping of this sequel to Allen's 1994 hit and you find a toy that can't be put together. What family film ever tried to incorporate a plot about fascism at the North Pole into an all-American celebration of holiday spirit? This is a Christmas present that fell off a truck.
In the first film Allen played a divorced ad executive who, after accidentally killing Santa, becomes his permanent replacement. In this movie the newly installed Santa discovers an odd contractual footnote specifying that he must find himself a wife or be bounced back to his slimmer, duller mortal life. Shedding pounds almost by the hour, he heads home to the States while a robot replica (also played by Allen) runs the toy shop. Really runs. Obsessed with enforcing the naughty-or-nice list, he creates his own army of enormous tin soldiers, stocks up on lumps of coal and dresses like a generalissimo. Children of all ages will be baffled and disgusted. Hey, kids, it's junta Claus!
Reprising his role from the first Clause, Allen is typically breezy and—regardless of Santa's girth—light on his feet. But as the dictator, he's forced to create a separate comic character, and he doesn't have the finesse. Allen shouts, pops his eyes and wheels about with his gut thrust forward like the front end of a tank. The inspiration may have been Mike Myers's Austin Powers/Dr. Evil yin-yang, but it's more like watching Jiminy Glick drunk on eggnog.
The script is embroidered with nice bits of satirical whimsy, but it comes to life only with Molly Shannon's cameo as a prospective Mrs. Claus who loves Christmas a little too much. As always, Shannon takes a hairpin turn from goofball clowning into truly demented comedy. She has quite a gift. (G)
Bottom Line: Lost Claus
The Weight of Water
Sean Penn, Sarah Polley
Coming so soon after Possession, the tighter, smaller Water could be called Nine-tenths of the Law. This, too, is a double narrative, with stories unfolding both in a dramatically electric past and a more static present. Researching an infamous 1873 ax-murder case, a photographer (Catherine McCormack) sails to a barren island off New England with her drunken-poet husband (Penn), his brother and the brother's lover (Elizabeth Hurley, subdued but still campily luscious). While adulterous tensions drive this quartet toward tragedy, the key to the past calamity is revealed to be a fisherman's bride. Looking as if she'd spent every minute of her life bundled against cold, this repressed woman writhes inwardly with perverse, explosive heat. The brilliant Polley plays her with such dark concentrated force, the movie is consumed by her, as if by a black hole. (R)
Bottom Line: A performance of real gravity
All or Nothing
Timothy Spall, Lesley Manville
After a vibrant detour into Victoriana with Topsy-Turvy, British director Mike Leigh returns to the dour, working-class London of Secrets & Lies. All or Nothing is about the punishingly long days and nights of a depressed cab driver (Spall), his drab common-law wife (Manville), their abusive son and sad, self-absorbed daughter, who mops up in a nursing home. Leigh's strength has always been the way he pushes his characters until they have their backs up against a wall of despair—then the wall cracks, and a ray of hope penetrates the chinks. But this can feel formulaic: By the end everyone has a purgative sob, as if each had taken a numbered red ticket and patiently stood in line, heart waiting to burst. (R)
Bottom Line: All the same