- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 16, 2002

This holiday season may be giving birth to a new Christmas tradition movies in which a regular Joe dons the fabled red Santa Claus suit.
We already have been treated to "Santa Claus 2," the sequel to the 1994 Tim Allen vehicle in which his character is transformed into ol' St. Nick.
Now another television regular is trying his hand at ho-ho-ho-ing his way into our hearts.
"Frasier's" Kelsey Grammer stars as "Mr. St. Nick," a punchy new Hallmark Entertainment feature airing at 7 p.m. tomorrow on ABC-TV.
Gently irreverent and adroitly cast, the yuletide offering revisits the reluctant-Santa theme, albeit this time, the future Santa is the son of the real deal.
Picturing Mr. Grammer, who shines as the addled Dr. Frasier Crane on both "Cheers" and "Frasier," as Santa seems a stretch on first blush. The comic actor is more than a one-trick therapist, however. He smoothly segues from a selfish ladies' man into the benevolent toy maker with Santa's mandatory twinkle in his eye.
We first meet Mr. Grammer's Nick St. Nicholas on the dance floor, spending another carefree night at a Miami hot spot.
The wealthy bachelor has all the eligible women clamoring for his attentions, but he locks his gaze upon Heidi, a gorgeous Miami meteorologist given a charge by actress Elaine Hendrix (1999's "Superstar").
Little does Heidi know that minutes earlier, Nick was at the North Pole having yet another falling-out with his father, the reigning Santa Claus (Charles Durning).
Nick is slated to take over the family business, but father and son can't agree on the details of the switch. Papa won't let his son modernize the Christmas production line, and Nick has a habit of showing up late wherever he is needed.
Christmas Eve is fast approaching, without a solution in sight, and Santa's magic powers are fading like a snowbank in autumn.
Nick forgets his troubles by pursuing Heidi, but her intentions prove as artificial as Christmas tinsel. Heidi is using Nick's wholesome image to rake in bucks through a faux charity Web site.
Will Nick foil Heidi's scheme, and more important will he notice the beautiful chef on his staff whose heart is a much better match for his?
Mr. Grammer's slow burns as Frasier Crane set the standard for that comic staple. He trades in those tics for his sanguine side as the conflicted Santa. That rich baritone of his, lowered for maximum sensitivity, is an effective instrument for conveying Christmas cheer.
Mr. Durning suffers by comparison, if only because he is forced to be grumpy for much of the proceedings. Physically, Mr. Durning's rosy-cheeked Santa proves a mirror match for every classic Santa Claus portrait ever drawn, with his cotton-white beard and ruddy features on glorious display.
It's a shame the veteran actor isn't a yuletide regular.
"Mr. St. Nick" has a grand time tweaking Christmas conventions before its gooey finale. Santa's withering powers force him to fly commercial, much to his horror, and simply setting a Christmas movie in Miami lends the genre a much-needed kick.
Too bad the film tacks on a pedestrian car chase toward its final moments.
The buoyant cast of"Mr. St. Nick" provides able support for Mr. Grammer. Brian Bedford finds a measure of grace as Jasper, Nick's faithful servant, and Ana Ortiz gives Nick's chef a grounded combination of heart and beauty.
Director Craig Zisk reigns in the performances, save for Colin Cunningham's Nardo, an immigration agent whose bumbling is a giddy counterbalance to the seasonal contrivances.
Hallmark's latest effort spends so much time spelling out its narrative that the fuzzy Christmas moments are kept to a minimum. That, combined with the sultry setting, makes "Mr. St. Nick" less a holiday staple and more a genial way to waste two hours away from those long department-store lines.

**1/2
WHAT: "Mr. St. Nick"
WHEN: 7 p.m. tomorrow
WHERE: ABC-TV Channel 7 (WJLA)
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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