Dinner at Fred's is a Christmas classic in waiting
By Thomas M. Sipos
Dinner at Fred's (1997) is a Christmas classic. Well, not yet. But it should be. I keep waiting for people to discover it. The film is quirky, romantic, and heartfelt. Yes, it's a romantic comedy, but despite some thematic similarities to other Christmas romcoms, it also has some offbeat originality.
Richard (Gil Bellows) is a business executive who plans propose marriage to Sarah (Kristin Lehman), the boss's daughter, on Christmas Eve. Sarah knows all about it and is busy planning the wedding. But that doesn't stop her father (Leon Pownall) from dumping extra work on Richard's desk the day before Christmas Eve. "Business doesn't stop on Christmas," he tells Richard.
So far, so typically Hallmark. Workaholic business people obsessed with materialism rather than the Christmas spirit. But Dinner at Fred's isn't a Hallmark movie, so prepare for some oddball twists.
Sarah and dad are flying up to their mansion for Christmas. But Richard is afraid to fly, so he's driving up alone. Then his car breaks down in a snowstorm and he loses his wallet. Stuck in the tiny rural town of Slago without money for a motel, Richard tries to win some cash by performing a magic trick in the town's annual talent competition. Which, as luck would have it, turns out to be that very night, in the very motel Richard was hoping to lodge in.
Unluckily, Richard loses to a woman whose eats glass. (Last year's winner farted and slapped the Star Spangled Banner on his bare ass -- this is not your Hallmark kinda town.) Nevertheless, Richard's magic trick deeply impresses Fred (Kevin McDonald), who invites Richard to spend the night with his family. Hence the title, Dinner at Fred's.
Fred has ulterior motives. His father (Christopher Lloyd) believes the family is under "the curse of the wild turkey." No one who spends the night can ever leave the house. You can try, but fate will stop you. As it does to Richard. Whenever he tries to leave, something intervenes. Fred hopes that Richard will use his magic powers to lift the curse.
Richard has no powers. He merely performed tricks as a boy, which he gave up when he became an adult. It's an old theme, reconnecting with your childhood dreams, but a very Christmasy one. And if Richard can convince Fred's dad that his magic lifted the curse, the curse really will be lifted.
"We believe in the curse because dad believes in it," Celia explains to Richard.
That's rather bizarre logic. Dad's belief convinces the family, whose collective belief makes the curse real, so they're seeking a way to disabuse Dad of his belief, so they won't have to believe, so the curse will cease. Yes, Fred's farm family is a bizarre bunch (much like the family in Cold Comfort Farm).
Celia (Parker Posey) is Fred's sister. She's so desperate to become a famous hair stylist, she styles and colors people's hair while she sleepwalks. Richard awakes to find his hair dyed blue, but only on one side. "I'm guessing you were sleeping on the other side," Fred explains.
Celia also becomes Richard's love interest. (I said Dinner at Fred's is a romcom.) Celia is everything Richard's fiancée is not. Whereas Sarah is cold, snooty, shallow, and materialistic, Celia is warm, open, innocent, and generous. Her free-spirited optimism rekindles Richard's childhood passion for magic tricks, and he tackles the challenge of lifting "the curse of the wild turkey."
The cast is excellent. Bellows (Ally McBeal) and Posey (1990s' Queen of Indies) display that "magical" chemistry required of romcom couples. Lloyd (Taxi, Back to the Future) plays another bizarro man, this time unintelligibly muttering in his privately invented language. McDonald brings his deadpan comedy persona from Canada's Kids in the Hall. In supporting roles are John Neville, Patricia Gage, Deborah Lobban, Aidan Devine, Don Francks, Jody Racicot, Joseph Kell, and Valerie Mahaffey (memorably hilarious as Joe's crazy stalker in TV's Wings).
Dinner At Fred's from Shawn Thompson on Vimeo.
The outcome is no surprise. Richard lifts the curse and wins the girl (Celia, not Sarah).
Shot in a Christmasy winter wonderland (Canada, actually), Dinner at Fred's is an amusing comedy, a sentimental love story, and a feel-good Christmas treat. Written and directed by Shawn Thompson.
The DVD is out of print. Used copies are rare and expensive. But cable TV and streaming services occasionally run the film. If you've seen all the Christmas classics umpteen times, if you're tired of recycled Hallmark fare, then Dinner at Fred's is worth tracking down.
Thomas M. Sipos writes satirical novels and film criticism. His website is CommunistVampires.com.