Fred Claus (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Making an enjoyable family Christmas comedy must be one of the most difficult things to accomplish in Hollywood, because the late-year presence of a good one in multiplexes is more rare than a White Christmas in New York City. Fred Claus, which fits loosely under the umbrella occupied by the forgettable Santa Clause trilogy, is the latest such failed endeavor. The movie is passable in a made-for-TV fashion, but the problem is that it isn't made-for-TV. This sort of thing tries to please adults and children, but the mismatched marriage of flimsy fancy and twelve step program parody fails to click with viewers of any age. The film's multitude of flaws might be more easily forgiven if the movie didn't overstay its welcome by at least a half-hour.

Fred Claus opens with an origin of Santa (Paul Giamatti) sequence worthy of Rankin Bass. The twist is that Santa's not an only child. He has an older brother, Fred (Vince Vaughn), who doesn't get along with his saintly younger sibling or his parents (Kathy Bates, Trevor Peacock). While Santa spends his time at the North Pole making toys with his wife, Annette (Miranda Richardson), and his elves, Fred has an apartment in Chicago. He's neither reliable nor stable, and his parking cop girlfriend, Wanda (Rachel Weisz), has just about given up on him. Then a financial opportunity falls into Fred's lap, but to take advantage of it, he needs $50,000. So, swallowing his pride, he goes to the only one he knows with that kind of money: Santa. A deal is struck - Fred will come to the North Pole and help out for a couple of weeks before Christmas and, in return, he'll get his money. Unfortunately, this is also the time when Clyde (Kevin Spacey), a humorless efficiency expert sent by the board of directors that controls Christmas, arrives to evaluate Santa's operation. His personal goal, resulting from a lasting childhood grudge, is to shut Santa down, and Fred's disruptive presence may make that possible.

The movie doesn't aim very high, preferring obvious jokes and pratfalls to anything that might require more effort. So we get scenes with Fred sleeping in a much-too-small elf's bed, Santa and his brother engaging in a snowball fight, a bunch of costumed Santas chasing each other down the streets of Chicago and up mall escalators, and Fred not enjoying his trip to the North Pole as a first class passenger on Santa's sleigh. Vince Vaughn, who is ideally suited for sidekicks and secondary parts (he was the best thing as the second fiddle in director David Dobkin's Wedding Crashers), sputters in the lead role - he's more annoying than sympathetic, and one gets the idea that Fred isn't supposed to be an anti-hero. When a trio of ninja elves takes down Fred, it's tough to keep from clapping.

Sadsack Paul Giamatti as jolly Saint Nicholas may be the oddest choice of casting in recent history. Giamatti oozes depression and dejection, transforming this Santa into a guy who needs to be medicated. Even giving Giamatti a fake belly, a red suit, and a full white beard don't do much to dispel the illusion that this Kris Kringle should be on suicide watch. The film's low-key nemesis of Clyde radiates enough malice that some children might be mildly disturbed. The problem is that all of his lines about how Christmas is really an organization run by an unseen-board won't be understood by the majority of those sitting in the audience. There's also an odd in-joke in which Lex Luthor ends up donning Superman's cape. As for Rachel Weisz - the word "extraneous" was written for this part. Maybe Fred should have been interested in the hot babe desired by his elf buddy, Willie (John Michael Higgins).

The film's most intriguing (and amusing) scene doesn't take place at the North Pole but in Chicago, where Fred attends a "Siblings Anonymous" meeting. Openly lampooning AA gatherings, this group brings together the brothers of famous people (cameos are provided by Roger Clinton, Stephen Baldwin, and Frank Stallone) in a support setting. The scene is critical to the movie's unnecessarily heavy plot, but no one in the target age group will understand it. It's an adults-only valentine that comes in the oddest place. How are parents going to explain this to the five-year-olds tugging at their sleeves wondering what's going on?

Like many comedies, Fred Claus isn't actually funny. It doesn't have to be because it stars Vince Vaughn, looks like it's supposed to be lighthearted, has a plot that would fit best in a TV Christmas special cartoon, and contains a few dumb jokes. The set design is at least impressive - the North Pole looks pretty good, although perhaps not as eye-dropping as the vision presented by Robert Zemeckis in The Polar Express. The special effects are good enough to get the job done. To fashion the pint-sized elves without resorting to a support cast of little people, Dobkin employs the methods adopted by Peter Jackson in creating hobbits. That way, 5'11" John Michael Higgins can play the man at the top of the toy building totem pole.

Because of its holiday theme and high Santa quotient, Fred Claus will undoubtedly pack in families starved for such fare in the pre-Christmas season. As past seasonal box offices have shown, the quality of the product isn't much of an issue. Fred Claus is less enchanting than the 2003 fairy tale, Elf (which was directed by Vaughn's good buddy, Jon Favreau), but no worse than the inexplicably popular Tim Allen series. The realization that the average Christmas-themed movie doesn't get much better than this (and is frequently a lot worse) is enough to make any film critic feel like a grinch and mutter "humbug!"

Fred Claus (United States, 2007)

Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2007-11-09
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1