Directed by: David Dobkin
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Vince Vaughn, Kevin Spacey, Rachel Weisz
Rated: PG for mild language and some rude humor.
Parental Notes: This is a fair PG film. If you’re overly concerned about vulgar humor, you might want to keep your youngsters away, but that’s about it.
There is a scene in “Fred Claus” which really works. Fred Claus (Vince Vaughn, “Into the Wild”) goes to a meeting of Siblings Anonymous, and finds himself sharing the room with Roger Clinton, Stephen Baldwin, and Frank Stallone (all playing themselves). His attempts to explain that he feels hopelessly overshadowed by his younger brother — Santa Claus (Paul Giamatti, “The Illusionist”) — don’t go over very well. That moment shines with the kind of sarcastic, biting humor that could have redeemed the film in larger quantities. Instead, “Fred Claus” is a PG-rated film from the creators of “The Wedding Crashers,” and it feels very, very reined in. Instead of a “Bad Santa”-esque take on the holiday, we have a film packed with holiday and romantic cliches until it bloats like Giamatti’s oddly-proportioned fatsuit.
The story is very straightforward: hundreds of years ago, selfless and sweet Nick Claus was made a saint, and (somehow) this means that he and his immediate family are all immortal. Cut to the present day, where his older brother, Fred, has turned from a sweet kid trying to be the best older brother in the world into a snarky repo man who is down on his luck and despises his family, especially his overly-beloved younger brother. Fred wants to borrow $50,000 from his brother so he can open a betting parlor across the street from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Santa says sure, but he has to come up to the North Pole and earn the money.
Meanwhile, hardharted efficiency expert Clyde Northcutt (Kevin Spacey, “Superman Returns”) has been sent by “the Board” to look over Santa’s operation. Santa’s been losing money and if he doesn’t turn things around, Clyde will shut him down the way he’s already shut down the Easter Bunny. The timing couldn’t be worse, what with Fred underfoot causing trouble.
Except for the aforementioned Siblings Anonymous scene, most of the humor is fairly straightforward. There’s slapstick, situational, and romantic jokes liberally scattered through the film. They’re workmanlike and may give you a chuckle, but they’re not quoteworthy and probably won’t stick with you for more than a minute or two.
One high point of the film is Kevin Spacey’s performance. He brings all his considerable talent to bear on the role, in spite of Clyde being little more than a plot device. The scenes with him have a lot more sparkle than the rest of the film.
Overall, “Fred Claus” is solidly mediocre. It’s neither brilliant nor terrible. If you’re looking for a comfortable, standard holiday comedy, it should hit the spot nicely. It has that “if you believe in Santa, it will all turn out all right” magic going on. But if you’re sick of familiar cliches (such as “acting like a stalker will win over the girl of your dreams” or “scroogey guy is redeemed by the power of Christmas”) then you should probably stay away.