Since fast-talking his way through Swingers in 1996, Vince Vaughn has yet to relinquish his crown as cinema’s reigning man-child, the charmer holding the Xbox controller who can cajole any girl into parting with her clothes (Wedding Crashers) and any guy into parting with his sanity (Old School). Vaughn’s self-imposed exile in the land of arrested development, while limiting, does play to his strengths. He’s a loose cannon in the most enjoyable sense, and one never knows if he’s going to read a line straight with a twist or just make something up. His gift of extemporaneous gab keeps on giving and is the only reason to even consider watching David Dobkin’s stale holiday fruitcake Fred Claus.
The film is the latest in a brave and ever lengthening line of Yuletide comedies that dares acknowledge the real meaning of Christmas: forcibly spending time with people you hate. The concept has resulted in more bad films (Surviving Christmas) than good ones (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation), so storywriters Jessie Nelson and Dan Fogelman deserve credit for their tasty spin on the genre. Pity their inspiration ends with the clever concept.
As its title suggests, the film is not about Santa Claus but Santa’s ne’er-do-well brother Fred (Vaughn). As the age-old fairytale goes, while young Nicholas was developing into the saintly, altruistic pride of Mother Claus (Kathy Bates), Fred was becoming ragingly jealous and resentful. Centuries later, with Nicholas now the bearded and beloved bringer of baseballs and Bratz paraphernalia, Fred is an indignant Chicago scam artist trying, with questionable success, to juggle his meter maid girlfriend (Rachel Weisz, adding some class), repo man job and dream of building an OTB across from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. To help fund the latter, Fred steals Salvation Army donations, which lands him in jail. Santa reluctantly agrees to pay his brother’s bail if he’ll come to the North Pole and pitch in at the workshop.
Decked out like the ultimate outlet mall, the North Pole is a snowy, shiny place of such unbridled joy that only Fred could be miserable. But Fred’s obstacles, the overcoming of which results in the much-appreciated end of this movie, are prioritized for easy laughs and artificial holiday uplift. In fact, when you throw in the elf with a crush on the tall, pretty blonde (Elizabeth Banks) and the efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey) threatening to shut down Christmas, there’s not much room left for the promising central conflict to open up and breathe.
Giamatti (Shoot ’Em Up) is an inspired choice for Santa, who is genetically engineered to bestow happiness yet is sorely tested by his black sheep brother. But he and Vaughn never connect, because Vaughn is acting in a different, looser movie too cool for Fred to eventually be called “the best big brother anybody could ever ask for.”
So really, the casting of Vaughn, a primary reason why people will see Fred Claus, is a bait and switch. Certainly there’s a point at which even the edgiest Christmas comedy will back down. Indeed, Terry Zwigoff’s wickedly fun Bad Santa didn’t have the guts to kill off its main character, as a ruthless hail of bullets was no match for studio focus groups and sequel considerations. To expect Vaughn to preside over the death of Christmas is not realistic. But on the flip side, there’s only so much formula the audience will swallow and not choke.
If Vaughn is trying to test the family-film waters without abandoning his core audience, it doesn’t work here. To quote Trent, the game-playing scoundrel Vaughn portrayed in Swingers, we want Fred to be “the guy in the rated-R movie you're not sure whether or not you like.” Instead, he’s “the guy in the PG-13 movie everyone's really hoping makes it happen.” Alas, Vince has become Trent’s punchline.
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti, Miranda Richardson, John Michael Higgins, Elizabeth Banks, Kevin Spacey, Rachel Weisz and Kathy Bates
Director: David Dobkin
Screenwriter: Dan Fogelman
Producers: Joel Silver, Jessie Nelson and David Dobkin
Rating: PG for mild language and some rude humor
Running time: 115 min.
Release date: November 9, 2007