Christmas is a time of many traditions. There’s the tree and the decorations, as well as the cookies, the chocolates and the fruitcake. And, of course, there’s the time-honoured annual tradition of Hollywood churning out a new Christmas movie every year in the hope that someday it will become a cherished holiday classic (and because it’s easy money). Thus, Hollywood begat 2007’s Fred Claus. The gimmick of this particular Christmas fare is that Santa Claus has a brother – and while Santa is steadfastly nice, his brother is naughty. The film explores the well-trod “Scrooge” territory by presenting a bah-humbug type who turns his life around by learning the true spirit of Christmas. One cannot complain about the sincerity of the message, but the idea is far too hackneyed and predictable. Fred Claus features a plot that can be foreseen from beginning to end.
Logically, the protagonist of the movie is the titular Fred Claus (Vaughn) who has lived almost his entire life in the intimidating shadow of his brother Santa (Giamatti). Ever since the birth of Saint Nicholas (when he first speaks the words that are nowadays more associated with skanky women), Fred has been unable to live up to the example set by his little brother. Jump ahead many years, and Fred is a fast-talking, genial but self-centred man living in Chicago. Desperate for a $50,000 loan in order to fulfil his dream of owning a business, Fred has no other choice than to turn to his estranged brother as Christmas fast approaches. Nick agrees to loan Fred the money, but under the condition that Fred travels to the North Pole to lend a hand. It’s bad timing for Nick to invite his loose cannon of a brother, though, as an expert has been sent in to monitor the operation at the North Pole and decide if it should be shut down.
Many questions come to mind during Fred Claus, particularly in relation to the mythology of Santa which gets muddled when Clyde (Spacey) enters the film. He alleges that “The Board” is threatening to shut Santa down due to financial difficulties. Who on Earth is this board, and who could possibly have the authority to treat Santa like this? Since when is Santa Claus a funded operation? This is the trouble with adapting such a long-running fantasy myth – it’s all well and good to explore Santa and his world, but magic is lost if it’s over-explained. Additional questions also spring to mind – why make Fred the older brother when it would’ve made far more sense from virtually every angle if he had been the younger brother instead? It’s made clear from the outset that Santa and his family are all immortal, so if Santa loses his job, does that also mean he loses his magical ability to repress aging? Outside of Santa and his immediate family, why is there another full-sized human acting as a project coordinator – is she an overgrown elf or did she just happen to stumble upon an unlikely Help Wanted ad?
Fred Claus is yet another Christmas-themed comedy that dares acknowledge the true meaning of Christmas: forcibly spending time with people you hate. This concept has resulted in more bad films (Surviving Christmas) than quality ones (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation), so the screenwriters (Jessie Nelson and Dan Fogelman) at least deserve credit for attempting a spin on the genre. It’s a pity their inspiration ends there. Despite everyone involved and despite the promise of something fresh, Fred Clausadheres to the cookie-cutter format of family entertainment much like Rudolph on his delivery run.
For a full two hours (two fucking hours), Fred Claus aimlessly stumbles about, alternating between unintentional laughs (Spacey’s character has a Superman fixation) and obvious jokes and pratfalls. The movie offers scenes with Fred sleeping in a much-too-small elf bed, Santa and Fred engaging in a snowball fight, and Fred not enjoying his journey to the North Pole as a first class passenger on Santa’s sleigh. There’s also a subplot involving an elf (Higgins) who’s in love with Santa’s good-looking assistant (Banks). It detracts from the Fred/Santa dynamic, and merely adds too many gruelling minutes onto the two-hour runtime. Eventually melodrama is thrown in, too, as highlighted by Fred’s sappy relationship with a troubled neighbourhood kid. The artificiality of the emotions displayed here are staggering.
Look, Fred Claus isn’t a complete disaster since there are flickers of brilliance here and there (like a Sibling Support group scene that boasts cameos from Frank Stallone, Roger Clinton and Stephen Baldwin) and it’s occasionally watchable (mainly on account of the delightful soundtrack), but it has more flaws than pleasures. To be fair, the second half is more serviceable than the excruciating first half (which is so boring one can literally hear the gears of the formula grinding into place).
After Will Ferrell’s success in the wonderful Elf, Vince Vaughn seemed like a natural successor in the “Christmas movies that adults can enjoy as well” category. But here’s the problem: Ferrell’s lovable man-child persona translated well to the genre, whereas Vaughn’s wisecracking smartass shtick is flat in child-friendly territory. Most of all, Vaughn (who is ideally suited for sidekicks and secondary parts) sputters in a lead role – he’s more annoying than sympathetic. When a trio of elves take down Fred, it’s tough to prevent oneself from clapping. Vince Vaughn’s comedic skills are clearly intended for better-written material.
Also worth mentioning is Paul Giamatti who pulls off a faithful portrayal of the jolly fat man, and is far more amiable and endearing than Vaughn. Kevin Spacey does a solid job as Clyde, while Elizabeth Banks is condemned to suffer the indignity of a one-note character. Oh, and Rachel Weisz has never sounded so incredibly Pommy…
Fred Claus is a fun idea for a movie, but the script sorely needed several more revisions before the cameras began to roll. There are plenty of Christmas movies already out there, and Fred Claus adds nothing new or worthwhile to this stale genre. It’s not an entirely bad movie, but it’s a decidedly bland one. At least it’s better than all those abominable Tim Allen Christmas flicks…