Directed by: David Dobkin
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti, Kevin Spacey, Rachel Weisz, Kathy Bates
Fred Claus opens with a voiceover that promises to tell the untold story of Santa Claus. Aside from the fact that I wish they had kept the story untold, whatever postmodern deconstruction of Christmas Fred Claus thinks it is, it’s not all that unique. When it gets down to it, the movie is basically every Christmas movie ever made, from its syrupy score to its feel-good ending. Why this movie was made in the first place is beyond me, since there are already dozens of interchangeable Christmas movies (all of them seeming to star Tim Allen) out there, but I guess the viewing public needs something to tide them over until the three solid weeks of A Christmas Story (1983) come around on basic cable.
Fred Claus fancies itself as a cheeky take on Christmas and Santa Claus—much like The Santa Clause (1994), but to a much greater degree—where every bit of the Santa mythology ends up being explained in rational, modern terms. This includes saddling Santa (Paul Giamatti) with a loser of an older brother, Fred (Vince Vaughn), a bitter repo man who took the opposite path of his saintly, spotlight-hogging brother (with one line, it’s explained that when someone becomes a saint, they are conveniently frozen in time and unable to age, along with his or her family). When Fred needs $50,000 to open up a business, he goes to his brother, who asks him to help out around the North Pole during the Christmas rush in order to earn the money. But soon dysfunctional family antics pop up—not to mention the appearance of an efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey), who’s hell-bent on getting rid of Christmas. But no matter how clever the film thinks it is, it still manages to cart out every Christmas movie cliché imaginable, right down to its schmaltzy “importance of family” ending. Heck, they even squeeze an orphan in.
But it’s not the recycled Christmas conventions that Fred Claus trades in that make it a bad movie. Those just make it a boring and trite movie. What makes Fred Claus so downright awful is what it decides to add to this. First off, you get Vince Vaughn in his full-on fast-talking mode, as well as a ton of broad slapstick accentuated by the most intrusive, ill-advised, goofy Keystone Kops-style sound effects imaginable. You even get rapper Ludacris (Hustle and Flow) and John Michael Higgins (Evan Almighty) CGI-ed à la Little Man (2006) to look like elves (evoking any Wayans Brother movie is an automatic three-star deduction). Add in at least three superfluous subplots, a complete lack of anything even remotely surprising and the film’s final—not to mention deplorable—message that giving gifts and buying things will solve all the world’s ills, and the movie’s prospects just get worse and worse. And while we’re at it, with the film’s ridiculously bloated running time of 116 minutes, someone needs to explain to director David Dobkin the concept of brevity (his Wedding Crashers runs 119 minutes). Heck, even P.T. Anderson has made a movie that is 95 minutes long.
Sure, with performances by Giamatti, Spacey, Kathy Bates and Rachel Weisz, the cast is top-notch, but none of them are given anything to do other than be famous names. It adds up to a lot of wasted talent in a waste of a movie. If Fred Claus is any indication of what Christmas is really all about, then maybe Ebenezer Scrooge was onto something. Rated PG for mild language and some rude humor.