The slew of awful Christmas movies over the past few years—just think of “Deck the Halls,” “Surviving Christmas” and “Christmas With the Kranks”—does not bode well for “Fred Claus.” There have been exceptions—Will Ferrell’s “Elf,” for instance, springs to mind, and the Tim Allen “Santa Clause” movies have been financially successful, if not very good. But generally speaking, no holiday season has been served worse on screen lately that Yuletide.
That makes the fitful pleasure afforded by “Fred” something to be thankful for. This is hardly a great movie, or even a particularly good one, but it has some pretty funny moments, and though the level of sentiment goes off the chart in the last reel, at least there’s some earlier sour to go along with the later sickeningly sweet. And most importantly, it’s frequently less a Christmas movie than a vehicle for Vince Vaughn, who dominates it just as Billy Bob Thornton did “Bad Santa,” a picture with which it shares a bad-tempered undercurrent, though hardly to the same degree.
In plot terms the movie of which this one is most likely to remind you, in fact, is Jeannot Szwarc’s big-budget 1985 “Santa Claus,” which told the story of Santa’s origin rather blandly and then moved into a rather dreary tale of a megalomaniac toy magnate’s attempt to highjack the Christmas holiday. Dan Fogelman’s script also deals with Santa’s adoption of his genial persona, and it sets up a conflict between Saint Nick and a modern efficiency expert who threatens to close down his operation and outsource the whole thing to the South Pole.
But it adds to the mix a tale of sibling rivalry between Santa and his jealous, low-life older brother. In a prologue we’re shown how centuries ago the latter, Fred (Vaughn), was turned against his little brother Nick (played as a grownup by Paul Giamatti) because the latter was so sanctimoniously generous and the apple of their parents’ (Kathy Bates and Trevor Peacock) eyes. The backstory also adds, without any logical explanation, that Nick’s adoption of the Santa persona brought apparent immortality and agelessness not only to himself but to his whole family, which allows the script to shoot forward to the present, where Fred’s a shiftless, fast-talking con-man in Chicago estranged from mom, dad and bro. But when he’s tossed into jail just before Christmas for one of his get-rich-quick schemes, he calls Nick to bail him out. Santa agrees, much to the consternation of his wife (Miranda Richardson), but insists that he come to the North Pole and work off the debt. Unfortunately, Fred arrives just as that mean-spirited efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey) shows up, and his disruptive conduct gives the number-cruncher all the ammunition he needs to close the elf factory down. The fact that Santa has also invited mom and dad to his place to rebuild family bridges makes matters even worse.
There’s more to the plot, of course—Fred’s on-again, off-again romance with a Chicago meter maid (Rachel Weisz), his surrogate dad routine with a troubled orphan called Slam (Bobb’e J. Thompson), and the friendship he develops with Santa’s chief elf, a lovesick fellow named Willie (John Michael Higgins, whose face is digitally superimposed on a much smaller body, as is that of Chris Bridges on another elf). But the big turn is Fred’s conversion to goodness, as he saves the day for his brother by taking over Christmas gift delivery, preserving the operation if he manages to finish the route before dawn.
It’s this final turn that takes “Fred Claus” into ultra-sappy territory: a montage of Fred repeatedly falling down chimneys is bad enough, but the interspersed shots of kiddies happily unwrapping presents to the strains of “Silent Night” are even worse (especially since the script has set up a premise involving hula hoops and baseball bats that seems practically to invite a nasty punchline). And the final family reconciliation sequences are tough to swallow. (On the other hand, Spacey’s reformation includes a nice jibe at the expense of his Lex Luthor role in “Superman Returns.”)
But there are sporadic compensations in Vaughn’s earlier motor-mouth shtick, which is certainly familiar but still amusing, particularly in his one-on-ones with Weisz, and in one inspired episode involving a “Siblings Anonymous” group and featuring some surprising cameos. Unfortunately such moments are more than counterbalanced by some poor slapstick (like a chase sequence involving multiple Santas and a really dreadful dance scene with Fred and the elves) and the saccharine stuff between Fred and Slam. The fact that Vaughn is virtually the whole show is a distinct drawback, too. Giamatti tries to make Nick genuinely soulful, which takes him too seriously, Richardson and Bates are totally wasted, and the visual legerdemain with the miniaturization of Higgins and Bridges hardly seems worth the effort when the results are so slim in comedic terms. As for Spacey, no one could have played the part of the officious, bitter company man better, which is not to say that it offers him much to do.
“Fred Claus” is generally well produced, with special kudos for the authentically chilly Chicago scenes, although the candy-colored, snowball North Pole setting is hardly the sort of stuff that will inspire awe in either children or their parents (the fact is, we’ve just seen it too often in other pictures). And that points to what will certainly keep the picture from becoming a perennial, or even lasting very long this year before wilting. Simply put, it’s a movie that, in trying to appeal to both tykes and older viewers in different ways, won’t entirely please either; the mixture of the jaded and the juvenile just doesn’t gel. By trying to be both naughty and nice, it exhibits a split personality that director David Dobkin isn’t crafty enough to overcome.
But though it’s no Christmas treat, at least it doesn’t descend to the miserable level of the rogue’s gallery of dreadful Yuletide movies we’ve suffered through in recent years.