2007, PG, 115 min. Directed by David Dobkin. Starring Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti, John Michael Higgins, Miranda Richardson, Rachel Weisz, Kathy Bates, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, Elizabeth Banks, Kevin Spacey.
REVIEWED By Toddy Burton, Fri., Nov. 9, 2007
How many laughs can one movie try to squeeze out of Vaughn being attacked by elves? Sadly, it’s an awful lot. If you’re going to have a movie heavily reliant on physical comedy and sight gags, that’s fine. You just need to make sure they’re funny. And in this case, they’re not. Vaughn plays Fred, the embittered older brother of the sainted (literally) Nicholas “Santa” Claus (Giamatti). The story begins in some vague fairy-tale past where we see the young brothers’ childhood. Nick’s nascent charity blooms, while Fred’s resentment toward his brother festers. Cut to present day, several centuries later. A grandfatherly narrator informs us that because Nicholas is a saint, he and his family live forever. I’m not quite sure how the Catholic Church would feel about this convenient rule. But in the world of Fred Claus, there’s one simple philosophy: If the plot isn’t working, make up another rule. Trading in jolly for neurotic, Giamatti’s Santa possesses a self-deprecating everyman demeanor that makes him a brilliant actor. Meanwhile, Vaughn exploits a schtick that plays well with an ensemble (Old School) or in a supporting role (Mr. & Mrs. Smith) but cannot carry the comedy of an entire movie. (Even in The Wedding Crashers, Vaughn's last movie with director Dobkin, he co-starred with Owen Wilson.) An embittered and delinquent man-child, Fred is desperate to raise $50,000 in order to start yet another shady business venture. His brother Nick will give him the money only if Fred visits the North Pole, and needless to say, Fred agrees. Before long, he's teaching the elves about rock & roll and cutting loose and becomes the frequent target of angry elves bent on protecting Santa. So trouble brews, and toy-making is threatened, which gives ammunition to Clyde (Spacey), the angry efficiency inspector looking for reasons to shut down Santa’s workshop. Despite stealing every scene he’s in, this two-time Oscar-winner can’t save this movie. And ironically, if there’s one thing this film needs, it’s an efficiency inspector. Awash with amazingly talented actors and comedians, including Higgins as a lovelorn elf, Richardson as Mrs. Claus, and Bates as Fred and Santa’s mom, Fred Claus is sadly just an early lump of coal under the tree.