Am I allowed to say that I did not like Fred Claus? Does it make me a Scrooge to recommend that this is one piece of holiday coal you should leave in your stocking?
Many years ago, in my first and only stand-up comedy routine, I complained about how difficult if would have been if you were one of Jesus Christ’s siblings. “What do you mean you know I did it?! Why don’t you ever blame Jesus? Oh sure, cuz he’s perfect!” You get the general idea.
In Fred Claus, Hollywood took the same idea and applied it to Santa “Nick” Claus. What must it have been like to live in the very large shadow of someone who is beloved the world over for his acts of kindness and benevolence? Not easy, judging by how older brother, Fred turned out. (For anyone sensing a Godfather nod, you’re right on target).
Perhaps not unsurprisingly, Fred (Vince Vaughn) took on the role of the black sheep of the family, moving to Chicago where he became a fast-talking, down on his luck, repo man. Over the objections of his wife, Nick (Paul Giamatti) invites Fred to the North Pole to help with the Christmas preparations and make some extra money. But Fred isn’t exactly the holly jolly type and soon this sibling rivalry flares up, pitting brother against brother.
As if things weren’t already bad enough, Mr. Northcutt (Kevin Spacey) shows up as an efficiency expert with hard data showing that Santa’s mom and pop operation is getting clobbered by Internet purchases. Northcutt has orders from the board to consolidate Santa’s operation, outsource as much of it as possible, and, if improvements are not immediately made, shut the North Pole down entirely. A modern Ebenezer Scrooge, Northcutt is not above a little sabotage in making sure Santa gets the pink slip.
The question, “Does Santa have a family?” is an interesting one, with lots of comic potential. But unfortunately, the script doesn’t go far enough with it, preferring instead to dwell on the Northcutt subplot that, frankly, we’ve seen in these sorts of films several times already. There are some nice bits at a “Sibling Rivalry Anonymous” gathering complete with Frank Stallone, Roger Clinton, and Stephen Baldwin, but overall the jokes are all recycled.
Director David Dobkin, who helmed the uproarious Wedding Crashers, finds his zippy, racy humor hamstrung by the necessary family-friendly storyline. His cast, which also includes Miranda Richardson, John Michael Higgins, Elizabeth Banks, Kathy Bates and Rachel Weisz (who sounds like a female version of the Geico lizard) is terrific, but they aren’t given much to work with. Vaughn, ever the adolescent stuck in an adult’s body, has a great ability to be both naughty and nice, despicable and lovable, but even his over-the-top antics can’t hide the fact that this story is built on some pretty shaky stuff.
You can see Fred Claus trying desperately to grab hold of the comic goldmine that Vaughn’s past co-star, Jon Favreau generated with his 2003 film, Elf. But it doesn’t try nearly hard enough. Fred Claus is replete with far-from-seamless digital effects, and oddly dark, dramatic moments that play with perfect menace — except for that fact that they have no earthly business being in a brainless, feather-weight comedy like this.
If you chose to indulge in Fred Claus, don’t expect to come out of the theater emboldened with the Christmas spirit. Though you will probably be singing a carol or two, and I suppose that counts for something.