The success of the 1966 cartoon The Grinch Who Stole Christmas triggered an avalanche of Yuletide themed movies from producers eager to cash in on the spirit of the season. Every year a new one comes out and for every hit there are a Santa’s sack of stinkers like Jingle All the Way and Surviving Christmas.
A year ago a new teaser trailer appeared in theatres to whet people’s appetite for a movie called Fred Claus. It was a lighthearted, fun clip featuring Fred (Vince Vaughn) and his brother Santa (Paul Giamatti) playfully yukking it up for the camera. It was a funny, warm scene that helped drive memories of the odious Christmas with the Krumps from the section of my brain that catalogues Xmas movies.
The casting of these two unlikely actors playing brothers seemed inspired and the supporting cast included no fewer than four Oscar nominees or winners. It seemed like a winner. Unfortunately, like so many previous failed holiday themed movies Fred Claus is naughtier than nice. It’s as though The Grinch, not satisfied with stealing Christmas from Whoville, swooped down on this movie and stole all the humor.
Vaughn, playing the title role, reprises his usual fast talking character—he’s part charmer, part con man who dreams of opening his own business, an OTB Parlor. Trouble is, he’s $50,000 short of the start-up money, so to raise money he dons a Santa hat, creates a fake charity and hits the pavement, silver bell and donation bucket in hand. After a dust-up with some other sidewalk Santas he winds up in jail with only one option for bail—his brother.
Fred has been estranged from his sibling (he’s an independent Claus or perhaps even Claustrofobic) ever since Nick cut down his favorite pine to make the first-ever Christmas tree. Wouldn’t that make them hundreds of years old, you ask? Why yes, apparently when Nick was made a Saint his entire family was frozen in time—they never age. Since then Fred has been living under the shadow of his younger brother.
St. Nick not only antes up the bail, but agrees to loan Fred the $50,000 he needs to open the OTB if he comes to the North Pole and works for the cash. Of course Fred agrees, and during his trip to Santa’s home turf befriends a lovesick elf (suffering from low elf esteem no doubt), and throws the whole operation into chaos to the point where Christmas is almost cancelled. By the end of the movie, however, everyone has learned valuable lessons about the importance of family, co-operation and acceptance.
Fred Claus earns a big lump of coal in almost every department. I don’t know what happened between the time the teaser trailer hit the multiplex and the film was released, but all the charm captured in that one scene we saw a year ago—which isn’t in the movie by the way—has been sucked out of the final product. Even the film’s funniest scene, a Siblings Anonymous meeting with cameos by Frank Stallone, Roger Clinton and Stephen Baldwin is poorly paced and not as effective as it could be.
The problems start from the top down. Vaughn’s inborn edginess works well in something like the R-rated Wedding Crashers but falls very flat in family fare; ditto his patented mile-a-minute patter. Director David Dobkin uses Vaughn’s size—he’s 6′ 5″—to good effect, however, taking every opportunity to hang the actor’s long legs over the edge of the tiny elf beds, but apart from some of the physical comedy Vaughn seems to be on auto pilot.
Co-lead Giamatti, tries hard but doesn’t fare much better than Vaughn. Crammed into a Santa suit (with disturbingly swollen hands) he resembles an overstuffed Christmas goose. It’s a shame; Giamatti is a great actor capable of much, much more than this. I wonder if his acting teachers at Yale ever imagined him delivering the line, “Ho, ho ho! I’m not gonna listen to no!”
Fred Claus uses the worst kind of manipulative holiday motifs to try and force the audience to care about these cardboard characters. There’s the orphaned young boy searching for a family, the bad-boy looking for redemption and the grinchy businessman. These stereotypes are the staple of every Yuletide story from A Christmas Carol on up and can be effective, it’s just too bad they weren’t put to better use here. Fred Claus exactly the nightmare before Christmas, but if you spend your money on this one, yule be sorry.