How’s this for a high concept Christmas movie: Santa Claus has a ne’er-do-well brother named Fred (played by Vince Vaughn, as Vince Vaughn) and a nebulous "board" is trying to shut down the North Pole for cost-cutting reasons.
Now, this was a movie that kind of bugged me because it provoked all sorts of questions in me without any kind of payoff for them, but then I doubt I’m really the target audience anyway. Fred Claus introduces the Claus family in flashback, with a family scenario that many can relate to, as older brother Fred constantly gets overshadowed by do-gooder Nicholas (a real saint, he is), causing much resentment in him later on. Now, this raises the first question I had: Are they all immortal or what? The movie basically notes that Santa has been around for over 200 years, but does that mean Fred has been around for that long, too? Wouldn’t dating get pretty boring for him after that length of time, watching any potential long-term relationship wither away and die because of the normal passage of time that he’s immune to?
OK, I’m thinking too much about this, I’ll get back to the review. In the present, Fred is dating a meter maid (played by Rachel Weisz with an accent right out of Supernanny) and running a scam charity that results in a funny chase through the streets of the city between himself and twenty Salvation Army Santa Clauses. Kind of an obvious set piece, but I laughed. Using his one phone call in jail, he gets brother Santa to bail him out, but Santa has a counter-offer for him: Come work at the North Pole and all his money issues will be solved. However, since you need a villain, even in silly Christmas movies, we get Kevin Spacey as a slimy bureaucrat, who gives Santa "three strikes" to shape up or "the board" will shut down his operation. Who is this board? What authority does Spacey have? It’s never addressed, which is another thing that kind of bugged me. Can Fred stop being such a goof-off and help to save Christmas for his brother while learning valuable life lessons along the way? I’m sure you don’t need to see the movie to figure out the answer.
Luckily, there are many more bright spots than cloying Christmas moments, like John Michael Higgins as the head elf, the always tremendous ninja elf battle, Paul Giamatti playing it as understated as possible in the role of Santa Claus, and my favorite bit in the movie: A support group for overlooked brothers, featuring Steven Baldwin, Frank Stallone and Roger Clinton. Stuff like that shows that the movie has little touches of humor for grown-ups as well as kids. But mostly the movie is for kids, as evidenced by director David Dobkin actually including a scene where Fred Claus gives a puppy to his little black orphan friend as a Christmas gift. I nearly barfed up my milk and cookies when that one actually made it through the cutting room process.
Still, while not as effective as Vaughn’s last effort with Dobkin (the hilarious Wedding Crashers), overall the movie works and works well, delivering some laughs and Christmas spirit, even if it’s not as laugh-out-loud funny as something like Elf. There was actually a lot of potential movies lurking under the surface here (an Office Space style North Pole movie, or "the board" trying to shut down other beloved traditional holidays) but this isn’t the type of movie to explore any of them in detail. (Rating: ***)
Audio & Video
Warner presents Fred Claus on a flipper disc, with one side full-screen (useful for resting your cup of egg nog on) and the other side the proper widescreen aspect ratio. I was not particularly impressed with the transfer here, as the picture was overly soft and grainy. I think studios are paying less and less attention to the DVD transfers as they try to force everyone into Blu Ray, and I don’t particularly appreciate it. The soundtrack, although Dolby 5.1, as little more than glorified stereo with the occasional bit of surround usage like in the snowball fight or the musical numbers. Dialog was clear and the mix wasn’t overwhelmed by the music, so it was fine for what it was. Plus there’s lots of Elvis on the soundtrack, always a plus. (Ratings: *** for Video, *** for Audio)
Not much effort here, either. David Dobkin has a nice, laid back commentary track, and there’s about 20 deleted and extended scenes (most of which didn’t work and well served to be cut out of an already long movie), and that’s it. On the bright side, I don’t think anyone would have been wanting to sit through "The Making of Fred Claus" for 20 minutes anyways. (Rating: **)
A thoroughly bland and inoffensive Christmas movie that is funny enough to warrant a watch on DVD but won’t replace A Christmas Story in your collection or anything. Mildly recommended.
Tags: Christmas, Paul Giamatti, Santa Claus, SmarK Rants, Vince Vaughn