- Rated PG
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All photos © Warner Bros.
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
f there’s one thing to learn from the holiday season, it’s this: Christmas movies released in November are almost never good. A quick look back at some of the more recent films from this time of year (“Surviving Christmas,” “Christmas with the Kranks,” "Deck the Halls”) is more than enough proof of that theory, but in case you needed one more example, look no further than “Fred Claus,” a PG-rated family comedy starring a man best known for bringing to life some of the loudest, most obnoxious characters in film history.
To be fair, the film isn’t quite as bad as its trailers suggest, but it’s also not as good as we were all expecting when we heard Vince Vaughn was re-teaming with “Wedding Crashers” director David Dobkin for a fresh take on the Santa Claus tale. Whether fresh or stale, however, it’s still a Christmas movie, and unless you like yours served with little common sense and even fewer laughs, it might not be the one for you.
The film opens with the hackneyed account of how Santa Claus came to be. We learn that Saint Nick was born a “long, long time ago in a place far, far away” (though it looks more like the county Renaissance Faire), that his older brother Fred despises him for being the perfect son, and that once he became a saint, his entire family was blessed with eternal life (though how that isn’t considered a curse to some is never mentioned). Of course, as the narrator is quick to point out, this is the story of Fred Claus. Taking place in present day, and unbelievably none the wiser after centuries of living as an adult, Fred (Vaughn) treats his girlfriend (Rachel Weisz) like crap, fronts a bogus charity, and has dreams of opening a gambling hot spot across from the city stock exchange.
Unfortunately, Fred doesn’t have the kind of cash he needs to purchase the open space, and when he calls his brother Nick (Paul Giamatti) for a loan, he’s wrangled into hoofing it up to the North Pole and lending a hand during the busiest time of the year. The family reunion is cut short, however, when an efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey) arrives in town threatening to shut down Santa’s operation. The situation is made only worse by Fred’s unconventional work ethic, but just when it looks like Christmas may be cancelled forever, Fred steps in to save his brother’s business and prove above all else that there’s no such thing as “naughty or nice.”
The first act of the film (save for the lame opening) is actually pretty solid. Vaughn piles on the charm in the title role, but as soon as he arrives in the North Pole, things go downhill, and fast. Fred is partnered up with Santa’s right-hand man (John Michael Higgins), gets into a fight with the workshop DJ (Ludacris), and dukes it out with a trio of ninja elves straight out of the "Santa Clause” films. What’s perhaps most disturbing, however, is the way in which the elves are featured. For the most part, the little toymakers are played by small actors, but in the case of Higgins’ Willie and Ludacris’ DJ character, the actors’ faces have been digitally imposed on smaller bodies, making for some freakishly strange visuals whenever they move. The technology just isn’t good enough and, quite frankly, isn’t necessary. Dobkin could have easily cast capable small actors in the role (Peter Dinklage, anyone?), or should have at least looked to Jon Favreau’s “Elf” (or even Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” ) for better methods on utilizing the effect.
The human characters don’t fare any better. Giamatti is wasted in a role that very few have been able to make work, while the film’s three women (Weisz, Kathy Bates and Elizabeth Banks) are given so little to do, their roles could have easily gone to less deserving actors. Only Spacey manages to rise above the mediocrity, tapping into a little Lex Luthor as the cold executive who, curiously enough, has held a grudge against the man in red ever since he was refused a Superman cape as a child. As the film’s unofficial Scrooge, Spacey helps to keep things entertaining by delivering lines like “I don’t nap” in his now-famous monotone voice, but even his character disappoints in the final act when he suddenly decides to right his wrongs. If only Dobkin was just as aware, “Fred Claus” might have been the comedy we were expecting. He certainly shows the ideas were there with a chuckle-worthy scene involving Fred’s attendance at a Siblings Anonymous meeting, but it strays too often into holiday movie clichés to make the experience a memorable one.