A film review by Craig J. Koban

FRED CLAUS jj

2007, PG, 114 mins.

Fred Claus: Vince Vaughn / Santa Claus: Paul Giamatti / Mrs. Claus: Miranda Richardson / Clyde: Kevin Spacey / Mama Claus: Kathy Bates / Angry Elf: Ludacris / Wanda: Rachel Weisz

Directed by David Dobkin / Written by Dan Fogelman and Jessie Nelson

What if Santa Claus had Vince Vaughn for a brother?

That very premise alone makes me laugh.  Itís just a shame that the rest of the film didnít and with some respectable consistency.

FRED CLAUS also manages to do the impossible by having not one, not two, but multiple Academy Award nominated and winning actors (Kevin Spacey, Paul Giamatti, Kathy Bates, Rachel Weisz, and Miranda Richardson) slumming through parts as if they were in desperate need for a paycheck.  As I sat through the screening I mentally counted six nominations and four wins for the performers just mentioned.  Thatís got to be some sort of a record for a Christmas film.  Oh, FRED CLAUS may also be the only holiday film to have such esteemed, award winning talent playing opposite of  Ludicrous as a pint-sized elf.

Maybe that, in theory, is funny.

Now, there is nothing wrong with a decent, noble minded family film.  One of the best films of this year, the criminally overlooked BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA, was one of those blue moon variety family entries that worked stupendously.  My problem with this genre, especially of the Christmas variety, is when they go the road most traveled and, in turn, lack inspiration and ingenuity.  Certainly, I found the underlining premise behind FRED CLAUS to be intriguing, primarily because of the fact that I think that Vince Vaughn is capable of being more side-splittingly funny than just about anyone.  Yet, the problem with the film is that it feels too safe and pedestrian with the material.  Not only that, but at 114 minutes, it wears out its welcome for far too long.

If there is any reason to see this wasted holiday film then it would definitely be for Vaughn, who gives it his all and goes for broke with a part that seems beneath his talents.  I think that he is one of the best actors in turns of giving some of the finest, seemingly unstoppable verbal tirades that lead to inevitable laughs.  As I wrote of him in my 2005 review of WEDDING CRASHERS, one of the funniest films of that year, "Vaughn is the absolute cinematic master of the manic, seemingly sugar and caffeine induced, rapid fire, hyperactive, and frenzied spontaneous comic monologue....his lines are uttered so frenetically and with such speed and rapidity that we are often left laughing not at what he is saying but how he said it."

There is no doubt that amidst all of the Oscar decorated talent in FRED CLAUS that Vaughn is the only one that keeps this enterprise afloat.  He brings to this seemingly mundane film that sparkle of sarcastic cynicism and sly wit that has made him so...well...dang money in his films.  He has some of the film's most hilarious throw-away lines, such as when he threatens Santa Claus, his younger brother ("Donít mess with me right now or Iíll call my lawyer with all of those vowels in his last name!").  His manner with describing olí Saint Nicolas to a friend at one point is also inspired ("Santa is the ultimate fame hound, a megalomaniacal clown that likes to engage in breaking and entering and binge eating.  I get jacked just thinking about it!").  He also has a very funny sequence where he tries to convince a mortgage broker why he will want to wait until December 23, not the 22, for a down payment on a property, not to mention how is able to, in a later scene, convince his brother to lend him $50,000 so that he can actually make him $10,000.

There are so many instances in the film that are textbook Vaughnism 101.  Unfortunately, he embodies the only apparent amount of comic passion and vitality to this Christmas vehicle.  Everyone else seems to phone in their work, with the possible exception of Paul Giamatti, who gives an interesting turn as a surprisingly sorrowful and melancholic Claus who plays effectively, for the most part, off of Vaughnís head spinning delivery.  Everyone else just goes though the motions.  They lack ho-ho and are just ho-hum.

FRED CLAUS opens with a fairly unnecessary prologue where we see the origins of Santa himself.  Shock of all shocks - we learn that he was not the only child in his family.  He has an older brother named, you guessed it, Fred (Vaughn), whom as a child grows more envious of his sibling's rise up the ranks of Sainthood.  His parents (the wasted Kathy Bates and Trevor Peacock) have nothing but praise for their youngest son, who was a revelation from the moment he was born.  We get a scene where, as a baby, Santa's first words are "Ho-ho."  Note to all filmmakers: CGI'ing moving lips on a real baby to simulate speech is never funny.

Anyhooí, Santa grows older and migrates to the North Pole where he establishes himself on top of an enterprise that is the primary gift supplier of all of the worldís children during late December every year.  While he fulfils his destiny making toys and deciding which kids are naughty and nice, Fred lives a meager existence in Chicago as a repo man (the film explains that if you are a member of the Claus family that you will live forever, so why Santa looks like an elderly man in the 21st Century and Fred looks like...well...Vince Vaughn is never explained, but never mind).  An early scene he has with a young girl is pricelessly amusing, as he tries to convince her why repossessing her familyís 50 inch plasma TV right before Christmas will help her waistline and social life.

Fred also has less than auspicious career goals: he wants to start a gambling business.  This does not sit well with his struggling girlfriend (the luminous - but wasted - Rachel Weisz, who must of had to return a favor to play this routine character) thinks that Fred is a lying lout and has no future with her.  Maybe she is right, seeing as Fred is busted and thrown in jail for trying to collect donation money on the streets without a permit.  Realizing that he has no one else to go to in order to bail him out, he calls his little bro for some help.

Santa does not make it easy on him, though.  He makes him earn the monetary loan back by insisting that he come to the his home in the North Pole to prepare for Christmas.  However, Fred emerges as somewhat of a loose canon when he becomes a less than stellar influence and role model to the other elves and ends up throwing off the toy production schedule.  This is really bad news, seeing as Santaís wife (Miranda Richardson, as wasted as Weisz and Bates in this film) canít stand her husbandís lecherous brother.  Not only that, but Santa has to contend with the fact that the board of directors that oversees Christmas sends a emotionless efficiency expert named Clyde (Kevin Spacey, as wasted as Richardson, Weisz, and Bates) swoops him and gives Santa an ultimatum: screw up three times and his operation gets shut down.

FRED CLAUS was directed by David Dorkin, who made the very funny Owen Wilson/Jackie Chan comedy SHANGHAI NOON and the before-mentioned WEDDING CRASHERS.  His previous competence with comedy seems curiously astray in FRED CLAUS, almost as if he has no real grasp of the underlining comic possibilities.  I am not too sure if he finds that right balance between making an affable film for children and a whimsical romp for adults.  I think that tykes will be taken in by the visuals and effects (The North Pole looks great, and the visual effects and fairly seamless; for the most part, normal sized adult actors playing the elves are superimposed in scenes with Vaughn fairly well. The effect is both seamless and subtly creepy).  Some of the jokes and sight gags are woefully juvenile, as is the case where Fred and Santa have a heated snowball fight.  Maybe if Santa had a bit more gnarly edge then the film could have generated some more satiric laughs.

The film does have one real comic high note that I laughed riotously at, but many children will nevertheless not quite get.  Feeling disparaged and down, Fred returns to Chicago and attends one of those self-help classes, in this case named "Siblings Anonymous", which is populated by people who feel like they live in the shadows of their more respected and famous big brothers.  Amusingly, the group is partially made up of Frank Stallone, Roger Clinton, and Stephen Baldwin.  When Fred tells the group that he has the biggest shadow placed on him for being Santaís brother, Stephen Baldwin jumps up, thinks he is a loon, and chastises him for making a mockery of the group.  The group facilitator desperately tries to calm Stephen by saying, "Remember...Fred is not Alec.  I repeat: He is not Alec!"

I liked that moment considerably, but it oddly seems like it belongs in another film.  Would children understand the humor in it?  Doubtful, as is the case with whether or not kids will find amusement with Vaughnís inescapably witty and droll riffs.  As a result, I think that FRED CLAUS, at best, is a real half-baked affair, a family Christmas film that seems better in the concept phases than it does as an actual motion picture.  This yuletide holiday film does have some moments of wit and exhilaration, and Vaughn seriously has no problem generating big laughs with minimal effort, but FRED CLAUS perhaps could have worked better as more of a nail biting dark comedy about dysfunctional families.  Instead, it goes for cheap laughs and a sugarcoated handling of its themes.  This film is too festive for its own good and no amount of Vince Vaughn can trump a mismanaged comedy.

Bah, humbug.

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