Santa’s brother is coming to town.
Christmas is a time of many traditions. There’s the tree, and all the crap you put on the tree so that it hardly looks like a tree anymore. There are all the cookies, chocolates, and goddamn disgusting fruitcake. And, of course, there’s the annual tradition of Hollywood churning out a new Christmas movie every year in the hopes that it will someday become a cherished holiday classic, raking in profits from now until the end of time. Thus Hollywood begat Fred Claus.
Meet Fred (Vince Vaughn, Clay Pigeons). He’s a repo man living in Chicago, with a dream of starting his own business, even if it means he never has time for his quickly-losing-patience-with-him girlfriend, Wanda (Rachel Weisz, The Mummy Returns).
One more thing about Fred—his younger brother just happens to be the one and only Santa Claus (Paul Giamatti, Shoot ‘Em Up). Fred and Santa, or “Nick,” as he’s mostly called, haven’t spoken in years, as Fred has a deep resentment over his brother’s fame. But after a rough night, Fred agrees to a North Pole visit to help out just before Christmas in exchange for a loan.
Unfortunately, trouble is brewing in the frozen north. An efficiency expert, Clyde Northcut (Kevin Spacey, Superman Returns), has arrived to oversee Nick’s toy making/delivery operation. If it doesn’t run perfectly smoothly, Christmas might be shut down…forever! Can Fred and his brother put aside their differences and save the day? And what’s Ludacris doing in this movie?
I didn’t hate Fred Claus, but I didn’t go ga-ga over it either. It is what it is—an inoffensive Christmas comedy. There are some big laughs, to be sure. The best of these are the slapstick moments, such as Fred fighting a group of Salvation Army Santas, or Fred’s battles with Santa’s ninja elf bodyguards. Even better, though is the interaction between Fred and Nick. Casting Giamatti as Santa will a brilliant move. He takes his usual “world-weary shlub” character and applies it to Santa. His quick-witted banter with Vaughn is the movie’s highlight, with a lot of it feeling natural and improvised.
If only the entire movie were as amusing. I believe the filmmakers were going for satire by showing the bureaucratic inner workings of Santa’s organization. We see the elves sorting letters in a high-tech way, and there’s a lot of talk about cataloguing children as either “naughty” or “nice.” Also, Santa spends a lot of the movie fretting over this efficiency expert looking over his shoulder. There is the occasional funny line with this part of the story, comparing the North Pole to a mega-corporation. Unfortunately, this plotline takes away a lot of screen time from the interaction between Giamatti and Vaughn, which is the real fun stuff.
Even more distracting is the way the film approaches the “mythology” of where Santa came from. The script makes a definite point to tell the audience that both Santa and Fred are immortal. Then, this is never followed up on. It’s either over-explaining, or not explaining enough. When we first meet Fred, he is completely enraged against Christmas, punching a plastic Santa in the face. It seems to me that if Fred has been putting up with Christmas for hundreds of years, then his resentment of his brother should be more of a low simmer, with some sort of catalyst happening in the opening of the film that pushes him over the edge. That would have taken time to show that, but it could have been something humorous, and it would have kept the movie’s emphasis on the relationship between the brothers and not on the corporate efficiency stuff.
Speaking of which, the “mythology” gets even more muddled when Kevin Spacey’s character enters the film. He alleges that “the board” is threatening to shut Santa down. Who on Earth is this board, and who could ever possibly have the authority to jerk Santa around like this? That’s the difficulty with taking on a long-running fantasy myth. You want to explore this character and his world, but it all loses its magic if you explain too much. The writers try to walk that line, but it never quite works.
What else? There’s a subplot about an elf (John Michael Higgins, Best in Show) in love with Santa’s good-looking assistant (Elizabeth Banks, Slither), and Fred’s efforts to help the little guy gain some confidence. It’s slightly amusing, but it too takes away from the Fred/Santa dynamic. Like most Christmas movies, Fred Claus tries to pull at the heartstrings, with Fred’s friendship with a troubled young boy and with Santa’s emotional confrontation with Northcut. There is such a thing as too much tear-jerkiness, though, and, again, these elements take away from the fun parts of the movie.
The picture quality here is good, especially when bringing to life all the bright, vivid colors of Santa’s workshop. The sound is also good, making the most of the sleigh-flying scenes. Kicking off the extras, there’s a low-key commentary by director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers). The entire commentary has its own subtitle track, by the way, which is a nice touch. Following that are some hilarious deleted scenes, many of which should have stayed in the movie. The theatrical teaser and trailer are also included.