Look, I’m going to start right off the bat here and say Fred Claus is not an original movie. It’s not going to set the world on fire with new ideas and deep thoughts on the meaning of Christmas or family. It probably won’t even change your mind about what kind of a performer Vince Vaughn is. What it will do is offer up 110 minutes of innocuous, family friendly fun, perfect for entertaining the kids coming to visit for the Thanksgiving weekend… if it manages to stick around for the next two weeks.
The film starts as a pitch-perfect fairy-tale, a narrator explaining that the story is going to be about Fred and his brother, who is born within minutes of the house lights going down. It doesn’t take long to see that little Nicholas (“The fattest baby I’ve ever seen,” says his mother) is going to be a saint. He does everything right, much to the disdain of his older brother, who never seems to catch a break. But the turning moment for Fred comes when we see that Nick doesn’t always take into account the ultimate consequences his actions have, no matter how pure and good the impulse. And this is all before Vince Vaughn assumes the role as the adult Fred Claus.
Fred, it seems, has become the perennial loser (he’s also stuck in time, immortal as a by product of his brother being sainted – a topic never actually dealt with in the film). He’s always on the verge of the next big break but this doesn’t stop him from ruining his relationship with a nice English meter-maid (Rachel Weisz). It’s almost as if he can’t help himself. While his brother was given the gift of kindness and generosity, Fred was given the gift of gab and a cynical streak a mile wide. If this film were being aimed at an adult audience, Fred would have been a shyster lawyer. Instead, he’s a schemer whose only friend is an orphaned 10 year-old. Sure enough, as often happens in these films, Fred gets into trouble and needs his brother, Saint Nick, to bail him out – literally. The trade-off is that Fred comes up to the North Pole to visit and work to earn not only the bail-out money but also the money needed to shore up his next scheme. So far so good.
Once up at the pole, though, things aren’t quite as jolly as they should be. An efficiency expert (a mostly wastedKevin Spacey) has been brought in by some mysterious committee who has determined that if Santa can’t do the job, he’ll be fired and Christmas will be outsourced. Now, all the plot points are in place. It’s a by the numbers job to make sure all the threads connect by the end. There are no major plot surprises (okay, there’s one, at a Siblings Anonymous meeting, but I’m not going to ruin it here) and by the end, everything works out the way it should.
With no surprises in the script, one would expect the direction to at least be a little innovative, but sadly, this isn’t the case. David Dobkin, whose biggest credit is Wedding Crashers, is not up to the task of directing an effects laden film. Most of the visuals are slightly off, giving them an air of “something’s wrong, but what is it?”
So what is there to recommend this movie? Performances and performances only. Vince Vaughn is perfectly cast as Fred. Somehow, he was able to work his stock character, the one he’s been playing since Swingers, into a role suited just for him. When Fred’s redemption does arrive (like there was ever any doubt) it’s strictly Vaughn’s eyes which let us believe it. Paul Giamatti as younger brother Nick is delightful, but then, he always is. As this generation’s Richard Dreyfuss, Giamatti has lovable shlub down to a science and here is no exception. These two are supported by Kathy Bates and Miranda Richardson as well as Weisz and Spacey. Each of them brings formidable talent to bear. It really is a shame the film doesn’t deserve them.
(Originally published at FirstShowing.net)