Many things signify the Christmas season is upon us. People bake cookies. They hang colorful lights from their gutters. The day-after-Thanksgiving sales clutter schedules. And now there’s Vince Vaughn as the title character in Fred Claus, a family comedy kicked into sappy overdrive that opens November 9.
Unfortunately Vaughn doesn’t get to have an R-rated, raunchy good time like Billy Bob Thornton did in Bad Santa. Fred Claus, from director David Dobkin (who directed Vaughn in Wedding Crashers), has a PG-rating and it restrains the lead actor. The fast-talking shtick Vaughn's famous for still gets a few laughs, but his likeable performance isn't enough to prevent this sleigh from crashing.
Fred’s younger brother is none other than Santa, played by Paul Giamatti (Sideways). Despite his family ties, outcast Fred — who wears a black beanie and a leather jacket — wants nothing to do with Christmas or his family. He’s more interested in getting his hands on $50,000 for some kind of “lucrative deal” and ruining his relationship with girlfri/files/storyimages/Wanda (Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener). But then he lands himself in the slammer and needs his little brother’s cash to post bail.
Jolly Santa gets his sibling out of jail and promises to give Fred the $50,000 he needs to start his shady business only if he’ll come to the North Pole to work. Fred agrees and arrives about the same time as “efficiency expert” Mr. Northcutt (Kevin Spacey, Superman Returns), who plans to outsource Santa’s job to — gasp! — the South Pole. Because this is a holiday flick, Fred obviously gets a chance to save Christmas, salvage his relationship with Wanda, reconnect with his mother (veteran Kathy Bates) and teach DJ Donnie (rapper Ludacris in a step down from his role in Crash) to spin something other than “Here Comes Santa Claus.”
Though it’s all predictable, there’s no doubt the kids will get a kick out of the Secret Service elves and Santa’s jaw-dropping workshop. For parents though, this thing's about as hollow as plastic candy cane lawn decorations. And the adult humor — a Stephen Baldwin cameo at a "Siblings Anonymous" meeting, for example — screams, "You should laugh because this is a joke for adults!"
The stocking's overstuffed with cheap laughs, such as the scene in which dozens of Salvation Army Santas chase a scheming Vaughn down Chicago streets and into a toy store. Or the scene in which Santa hops on a snowmobile and zooms after Fred. Or the time elf Willie (John Michael Higgins, For Your Consideration) learns to dance so he can impress Santa’s Little Helper (Elizabeth Banks, NBC's Scrubs). Or...well, you know the type of movie. Jingle All the Way milked similar jokes more than a decade ago.
The movie is packed with solid actors, but groan-worthy speech after speech makes Fred Claus tough to stomach, like a glass of eggnog left out overnight. The younger crowd, of course, won't notice the problems and may even learn a lesson about how it's okay to only receive a baseball bat or hula hoop for Christmas. Everybody else will prefer to stay out of Santa's workshop and hang out with Vaughn down the snow-covered road at Frosty's Tavern.
Out of 4