I’m willing to admit I have a weakness for Christmas movies-- movies where there’s always six inches of snow on the ground, everything is covered in bright lights, and presents show up under the tree immediately after Thanksgiving. Even in November I’m ready for Christmas movies--if you don’t stop me, I’m going to go rent It’s a Wonderful Life right now.
This is all a way of saying that if there were a way to fall for Fred Claus, I would have found it. Instead, I chuckled a few times, felt some minor emotional uplift in key moments, but was mostly left stone cold by the entire thing, and was even a little creeped out. Vince Vaughn and director David Dobkin may have struck gold with Wedding Crashers, but out of their comfort zone of nymphomaniacs and scheming man-children, they totally flop.
We start with a prologue set in a Grimm-esque German wood, where the Claus family has given birth to Nick and older brother Fred has vowed to be a perfect big brother. When all Nick can do is be the perfect son and constantly re-invent Christmas, though, Fred becomes frustrated that he’s forced into the role of family black sheep. Conveniently, Nick becomes an actual saint, which keeps the entire family the same age for the rest of eternity, bringing us to 21st-century Chicago. Fred (Vaughn) is dating Wanda (Rachel Weisz), a Londoner who for some reason has come all this way to become a meter maid and put up with an idiot boyfriend, who rips off the Salvation Army and whose grandest dream is to open an off-track betting storefront outside the stock exchange. He’s a winner, that Fred.
Fred calls Nick (Paul Giamatti) to ask for the $50,000 he needs to open the betting place and Nick demands that Fred travel to the North Pole in person to get the cash, putting in some time with the elves at the workshop to earn the dough. Fred arrives at the same time as Clyde Northcutt (Kevin Spacey), an efficiency expert from the agency that apparently monitors all holiday gift-giving creatures to make sure they’re meeting standards (the Easter Bunny is next on the list). He threatens to shut the whole operation down if they don’t up their efficiency, but wouldn’t you know that Fred’s arrival throws the workshop into upheaval, necessitating a last-ditch effort to save Christmas and allowing Fred stepping into the big red suit himself.
After the success of Elf, Vince Vaughn seems like a natural successor to Will Ferrell in the “Christmas movie that adults can enjoy too” category. Thing is, Ferrell’s loveable idiot character translated far better to the genre than Vaughn’s wisecracking smartass schtick. Fred Claus vacillates uncomfortably between Fred’s hijinks, like locking an elf DJ (Ludacris) in a closet, and Christmas sentiment, embodied by Fred’s highly sappy and unbelievable relationship with a troubled neighbor kid who winds up in an orphanage. Vaughn is appealing to watch even through some of the schlock, but when he gazes wistfully into a globe that shows all the “naughty” kids, you want him to go back to lobbing insults at Nick.
Vaughn and Giamatti work really well together, and Spacey is hilarious as the buttoned-up efficiency expert, but other talented performers (Kathy Bates as Mama Claus, Elizabeth Banks as Santa’s adult-sized helper) are wasted. Banks especially, has to suffer the indignity of a one-note character who winds up in a relationship with a middle-aged elf (John Michael Higgins); doesn’t the crazy chick from The 40-Year Old Virgin deserve better than this?
There’s nothing overwhelmingly callow or offensive about Fred Claus-- Christmas spirit reigns in the end, even if it is uncomfortably represented by mounds and mounds of presents to open on Christmas morning-- but it is so calculated in its sentimentality that it almost feels cynical. There are plenty of Christmas movies out there already, and Fred Claus adds nothing new or worthwhile to the genre.