Fred Claus (2007) / Comedy-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: PG for mild language and some crude humor
Running time: 116 min.
Cast: Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti, Kevin Spacey, John Michael Higgins, Miranda Richardson, Rachel Weisz, Kathy Bates, Elizabeth Banks, Trevor Peacock, Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges, Bobb'e J. Thompson
Cameo: Frank Stallone, Roger Clinton, Stephen Baldwin
Director: David Dobkin
Screenplay: Dan Fogelman
Review published November 10, 2007
The proverbial lumps of coal (boy, isn't this phrase becoming a trite cliché for movie critics?) called the family Christmas movie get trotted out toward the end of almost every year, and for every good one, there are about a half-dozen that will make you wish the holiday never existed. Fred Claus falls squarely in the latter category. Outside of a pretty fine cast of Oscar-nominated actors, most of whom are pretty much wasted (I wish I were wasted before I went in to the theatre), there's not a great deal here to evoke a sense of Christmas cheer. There is energy, though, and an interesting main premise, but the reason Fred Claus ends up being another misfire is that a film with this much budget, along with Vince Vaughn (The Break-Up, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) front and center, should have at least a handful of belly laughs. There are moments of mild amusement, but they are few and quite far between, and as far as belly laughs, the only ones you'll hear in the theater come from the "Ho Ho Ho"s of Santa coming out of the speakers.
The main premise of the film is that our beloved Nick (Santa) Claus (Giamatti, Shoot 'Em Up) has an older brother named Fred, who has, from the moment the younger was born, lived in the giant shadow of his saintly and talented sibling. He wanted to be good to his brother, but his parents look at him with such disappointment, eventually causing self-imposed estrangement with his family to become a nobody, an amoral repo man (the mirror opposite of Santa -- he takes gifts away) in Chicago.
Fred loses his girlfriend (Weisz, Eragon) and after an attempt to scam money with a phony charity, he ends up in prison, where he must beg his brother for money for bail, and to start up another scam. Santa agrees, but only on the condition that he come to the North Pole to earn the money by helping with the pre-Christmas preparations. Upon arriving, Fred can't take all of the good cheer and immediately begins to try to make some changes. What he doesn't know is there is an efficiency expert (Spacey, Superman Returns), whose main quest is to drive Santa out of business and outsource the operations to the South Pole, on the premises, and he's going to shut the place down if things don't appear to be running smoothly.
Fred Claus is a noisy and cluttered film, vastly overlong (much like Dobkin's previous effort, Wedding Crashers), and too many needless characters. Subplots such as Fred's troubles with his girlfriend, Willy (Higgins (Evan Almighty) playing Santa's right-hand elf) trying to get together with a lovely fellow helper (Banks, Invincible), Fred's friendship with a precocious African-American orphan (Thompson), and the unendurable dysfunctional family squabbles only add to the feeling that the script by Dan Fogelman (Cars) started with a kernel of inspiration and little knowledge of where to go with it once it is set up. Dobkin makes the wrongheaded assumption that having Vince Vaughn act crude and lewd in a fantasyland of immense cheeriness would be enough to have people rolling in the aisles. Sadly, Vaughn comes off as hardly sympathetic and even less amusing. He's a very good comic actor, but he's not a comedian, so without anything funny to say, this is a creative DOA from inception.
The film has an awkward look that sticks around throughout, mostly due to the weird rendering of the elves. Much like the Hobbits in the Lord of the Rings films, most of the main elves are played by actors who are rather tall, but shortened thanks to a great deal of CGI work (pretty much utilizing Little Man's copy-paste head technique, only less effectively). However, the CGI employed here doesn't mesh terribly well, and is a bit herky-jerky due to too much processing. It is a constant source of distraction if you are unfortunate enough to notice it. Perhaps I wouldn't even have noticed such a thing if not for the fact that the story at hand is trite and boring, with little to be engaged by and no one to really root for.
What really sinks Fred Claus from being a passable time-waster down to just a plain old bad movie is Dobkin's lack of realization that the comedy well runs dry once the punch line is delivered. An early scene where Fred is confronted by a gang of Salvation Army Santas initially amuses, but then continues for several minutes of unfunny slapstick. The same goes for a snowball fight that occurs between Santa and Fred later. A scene where Fred goes to a "Siblings Anonymous" meeting and he rubs elbows with the likes of Frank Stallone, Roger Clinton and Stephen Baldwin has the makings of a funny skit comedy, but they couldn't really find a funny angle other than the initial idea. That this scene is completely needless is not nearly as much of a filmmaking sin as the fact that it goes on and on and on for minutes after the comic value has expired.
Fred Claus will most likely have an audience that enjoys it. Little kids might like the scenes of slapstick, and those who like even the dumbest of family Christmas films will probably think it is no worse than others they regularly watch around the winter season. Vince Vaughn diehards might also think his shtick is funny even when there's nothing remotely amusing about most of anything he does (the PG rating doesn't help his ability to shock). However, outside of these demographics, most others will think it a grand bore, showering us with excess and diversions, and nary a direction explored worth the time and energy expended. That it actually tries to go for sticky sentimentality in the end is the biggest kick to the stomach, and almost had me heading to the exit early.
Fred Claus evokes the same Christmas disappointment as opening presents and getting someone else's re-gifted wares. Too bad we can't take it back and exchange it for something more to our liking.
©2007 Vince Leo