Whether or not you're going to enjoy Fred Claus pretty much boils down to one easy question: Do you like Vince Vaughn? If you find Mr. Vaughn's on-screen fast-talking, swagger-walking good-man-but-bad-boy shtick irritating or tedious, Fred Claus will be as enjoyable as a heaping plate of undercooked salmonella-laced turkey. If you find Mr. Vaughn to be a lively, animated figure who livens up pedestrian material with his mere presence on-screen, you'll find Fred Claus a well-intentioned, family-friendly, big-and-shiny holiday comedy.
And while Fred Claus is hardly a one-person show -- it's got a nice, deep back bench of supporting players that keep things moving along in the right key -- it would be hard to deny that star (and producer) Vaughn is the quarterback of the team. Grafting modern family dynamics psychology onto ancient folklore, Fred Claus opens with the youth of the Claus boys, as young Frederick attends the birth of his new brother Nicolas in an unnamed semi-medieval Euro-style thatched hut home. Nicolas is a lovely baby, and grows to be a kind and gentle child; so kind and gentle, in fact, that Fred can't help but look a little shabby in comparison. We then zoom forward an unspecified number of years, as our narrator explains that the attainment of sainthood freezes you and your whole family in time. Santa is ageless; so is Frederick ... ... Who now goes by Fred, and lives in Chicago working repo and striving to open his own off-track betting parlor.Santa's sainthood may keep Fred from growing old, but Fred alone has kept himself from ever growing up. Vaughn's not really playing a character here, just bringing his public persona to a plot: Motor-mouthed, self-obsessed, easily irked and yet intrinsically decent. Vaughn's Fred surveys the holidays with bleary eyes and the appearance and weary demeanor of a hung over Atlas: I'm just gonna put this down for a second, baby, don't worry, could you get me a beer while you're up? After establishing that Fred is a bit of a jerk to strangers and his girlfriend (the under-used Rachel Weisz), the plot of the film-- such as it is -- kicks in: Fred needs $50,000 by Dec. 22 to open his dream business. He decides to hit Santa up for it. Santa's not against the idea, but Nick has to work for the cash -- at the North Pole.
Santa's played by Paul Giamatti, and Giamatti manages to walk a fairly tough tight rope; his Santa's got twinkling eyes and merry dimples -- all the Clement Clarke Moore stuff -- but he's also got feelings, too. It's a tough job to humanize an icon, but Giamatti makes it happen. Santa's not just dealing with Fred; he's also facing coal-hearted efficiency expert Clyde Northcut, assigned by an unseen, unexplained group of higher-ups to make sure Christmas happens within the expected tolerances this year. If it doesn't, Santa's going to find a pink slip under the tree. All the holidays are being looked at, as Northcut explains: "We're thinking of shutting down Christmas, and outsourcing the whole thing to the South Pole ... we're also getting rid of the Easter Bunny: It's a bunny, but it lays eggs ... it just confuses people. ..." Clyde is played by Kevin Spacey, who's essentially doing a kid-friendly riff on Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glenn Ross; Santa's three strikes away from a ho-ho-horrible fate. Fred's presence, manning the 'Naughty-or-Nice" review desk, at the busiest time of the year doesn't bode well, either.
Director David Dobkin's vision for Fred Claus feels like an inversion of the superior Elf -- instead of the embodiment of the plucky spirit of Christmastime coming from the North Pole to our mean and jumpy real world, the embodiment of the spirit of our mean and jumpy real world travels to the plucky, spirited North Pole. In Fred Claus, Santa's outfit is modernized: Head Elf Willie (John Michael Higgins, deadpan and hilarious even when digitally diminished to elf-size) gets his directions for the sleigh over a headset, while Santa's Little Helper Charlene (Elizabeth Banks) is a thoroughly modern clipboard-wielding executive assistant. But the central timeless question of naughty or nice is still in play, especially when Fred's anger at his brother runs the risk of ruining Christmas for everyone.
Dobkin's direction isn't especially inspired; here, as in The Wedding Crashers, his technique seems to consist of hiring talented people and letting them do their thing. And Dan Fogleman's screenplay meanders through all the expected plot points without much hustle; at 114 minutes, Fred Claus will feel like an eternity to kids who haven't hit their teens yet. And yet, when Fred takes exception to Santa's methods, offering that " ... there may be kids that are scared, or not listened to, or upset ... but there are no naughty kids, Nick ..."? Well, I got something suspiciously like a lump in my throat. I may despise cheap sentiment and spurn excessive holiday consumerism, but well-done, peace-on-earth, goodwill-to-all Christmas stuff always hits me like a ton of bricks. (I swear, I've just had something in my eye every time I've ever seen the last 10 minutes of It's a Wonderful Life. Or Scrooged. Or A Christmas Story. Or. ...)
And while the coarse, hustling Vaughn may be an unlikely avatar of the Christmas spirit, well, that just makes Fred's eventual embrace of the season all the more charming. None of the jokes or plot points in Fred Claus are unexpected as Fred comes around, rallies the elves, steps into his brother's shoes (or, rather, boots) and delivers this year's gifts, but Vaughn's execution makes those moments more wired than tired, more slippery than stale. Imagining the parallel-universe version of Fred Claus with Adam Sandler or Jim Carrey in the title role inspires grimaces; with Vaughn in place, the movie finds more than a few laughs in fairly familiar Christmas-flick clichés. A lot of other critics are giving Fred Claus the "bah, humbug" treatment, but I think that's overkill for a movie this slight and well-intentioned; while Fred Claus's story is all over the map, at the very least its heart is in the right place.