This review refers to the initial theatrical release. A review of the DVD release can be found below.
It’s early November and that can only mean one thing: the time has come for the first of Hollywood’s annual Christmas comedies. We get a few of these every year around this time. Some of them are classics (Elf, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation); others are a big ol’ lump of coal in your stocking (Tim Allen’s Santa Clause pictures, Deck the Halls). Somewhere in the middle falls Fred Claus.
Vince Vaughn plays the title character, the older brother of St. Nick (Paul Giamatti). You may ask yourself, as I did, how this could be possible considering that Santa is hundreds of years old and Vince Vaughn is in his mid-30’s. The screenplay explains to us that when one becomes a saint, his life and the lives of his immediate family all freeze in time. This brings to mind images of a turn-of-the-century Vaughn wandering around telling everyone that they’re “money, baby.” It also makes me realize that Mrs. Claus will never divorce Santa, lest she abruptly shrivel up and die.
Fred is a perpetual screw-up, driven by jealousy and resentment toward his famous brother. As a result, he has financial troubles, lives in a dingy apartment, and screws up his relationship with a pretty Chicago meter maid (Rachel Weisz). When Fred is arrested, Santa bails him out and also offers him a temp job at the North Pole. This turns out to be a mistake. Fred fights with the elves and makes careless mistakes. Kevin Spacey plays an efficiency expert who would like to shut down Santa’s Workshop, and Fred gives him all the ammunition he needs. Eventually, Fred has to grow up enough to help his brother save Christmas.
Fred Claus is an odd picture in that it wants to be two radically different things simultaneously. On one hand, it aspires to be a heartwarming holiday classic; on the other, it wants to be a raucous Vince Vaughn comedy. Surprisingly, it scores better on the first count than on the second. This is not a criticism of Vaughn – whom I like very much – but I think he’s really the wrong actor for this film. He specializes in playing fast-talking, cynical hipsters, and no one does that kind of thing as well as he does. But his style of humor is too abrasive and confrontational for a film that, by nature, requires a lighter touch. In a more adult-oriented comedy like Old School or Wedding Crashers, Vaughn is hilarious because he doesn’t have to hold himself back. Forced into PG mode with Fred Claus, the actor compensates for his inability to be unexpurgated by overdoing his trademark bits. He talks a little too fast and plays the character with just a little too much cynicism. His tone is at odds with the tone of everything else.
Ben Stiller is another one who has mastered the art of abrasive comedy yet, in Night at the Museum, he somehow figured out how to adapt it for a younger audience while still seeming to appear comfortable. Vaughn, meanwhile, mugs at the camera and chatters like a motor-mouth on speed in a manner that I think might possibly unnerve small children in the audience. It’s not a bad performance, just one that would be far more effective in a harder, Bad Santa-esque comedy.
Paul Giamatti fares much better as Santa, in what has to be one of the more inspired bits of recent casting. So does Kevin Spacey, who elevates a generic villain into something far wittier than you’d expect.
Fred Claus has its share of nice moments. It’s a weird kick to watch the incredibly tall Vaughn dancing around with a factory full of elves. A montage of Fred jumping down chimneys and stuffing cookies in his mouth is clever too. But while the movie is often undeniably amusing, it’s rarely funny. For a comedy, the laugh quotient is not as high as you would expect. Part of it, as I said, is due to the fact that Vaughn can’t cut loose. Another part of it is that the film gets lost in its own largeness. Clearly, a fortune has been spent on the special effects, sets, and costumes. You can see the money all up on the screen.
Those things are often used as a substitute for actual comedy, though. Here’s an example of what I mean: Several of the elves are played by recognizable actors such as John Michael Higgins (a regular in the Christopher Guest pictures) and rapper Chris “Ludacris” Bridges. A special effect is used where the faces of those actors have been grafted onto the bodies of smaller actors to make them appear more elf-like. On a surface level, it makes you giggle to see Ludacris as an elf. Unfortunately, though, the use of this special effect means that Vaughn and his elfin co-stars often aren’t really appearing in a scene together. He’s acting on a set, they’re acting against a green screen, and the two are being composited. Without that live interaction, many of the scenes between Fred and the elves – which are supposed to be among the film’s comic highlights – fall flat. I’d rather have seen a simpler, more low-key depiction of the North Pole. After all, that kind of thing worked well in Elf.
As a contrast, consider the funniest scene in the movie – one that also ranks as one of the funniest scenes in any movie this year. In his effort to improve himself, Fred joins a support group called Siblings Anonymous that is populated by the brothers of other famous people (I won’t ruin the joke by revealing who’s there, except to say that the filmmakers scored a real coup). The scene works because it has the kind of edginess Vaughn thrives in, it’s more character-based than effect-based, and it makes full use of the movie’s premise. Fred Claus should have been a two-hour version of this scene.
To be completely fair, there are other laughs scattered around, and the all-star cast is completely likeable. The final half hour touches all the right emotional bases and does so in a perfectly pleasant way. I think that families who go to see Fred Claus won’t have a bad time, just an underwhelming one. It’s an okay picture – a harmless time-killer for the holiday season. Given the name actors, the big budget, and the high concept, I guess I just expected it be a little more than that.
( 1/2 out of four)
Fred Claus will be available on DVD and Blu-Ray beginning November 25. The DVD has a fullscreen version of the movie on one side and the widescreen version on the other. A digital copy of the movie is included.
There are two special features, beginning with a running audio commentary from director David Dobkin.
The other special feature is a series of deleted scenes, which cumulatively run about 25 minutes. Some sequences are longer versions of what already appeared in the film (such as the opening "Santa chase") while others were excised altogether. The best of the deleted scenes feature more work from the always hilarious John Michael Higgins. Some of them also suggest a highly improvisational tone on set. For example, a lengthy scene in which Santa tries to convince Fred to have dinner with their parents is essentially a long ad-lib between Vince Vaughn and Paul Giamatti that was shortened for the final cut so that the strongest of their improvs were retained.
I had some mixed feelings about Fred Claus during its theatrical run last year. That hasn't changed; the movie still feels a little bloated, as though they were trying to force a Christmas classic out of a not-funny-enough idea. That said, the picture has its moments (usually courtesy of Higgins and Giamatti), and young kids may enjoy popping the DVD into the player to watch around the holidays.
Fred Claus is rated PG for mild language and some rude humor. The running time is 1 hour and 55 minutes.
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