Fred Claus (2007) dir. David Dobkin
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti, John Michael Higgins, Kevin Spacey, Rachel Weisz
There’s a reason why films like “It’s a Wonderful Life”, and “A Christmas Story” get played year after year, it’s actually quite hard to make a great Christmas film. Last year’s big Christmas film was “Fred Claus”. A fine cast led by Vince Vaughn and Paul Giamatti put it a neck above the Tim Allen sort, but does it have the lasting power of “A Christmas Story” or even “Christmas Vacation”?
Vince Vaughn plays Fred Claus, the pathetic brother of Santa Claus (Paul Giamatti). Since childhood, he’s grown up in the shadow of his more famous, more successful and saintly younger brother. In the present he’s a ball-busting repo-man. His self-pity has also stunted his relationship with his girlfriend Wanda (Rachel Weisz). When he lands in jail without the ability to post bail, he calls up his brother Saint Nick for help.
In exchange for the bail money Fred agrees to help out Santa getting ready for Christmas. His working class forthrightness makes him a fish out of water and he quickly upsets the natural order of the North Pole. Meanwhile, a stuck-up ‘efficiency expert’ played by Kevin Spacey threatens to shut down the whole North Pole operation for good if they don’t improve and make their quota. Fred and Santa have to overcome their sibling rivalry in order to save Christmas.
Vaughn is credited as an associate producer, but fingerprints are all over the film. David Dobkin (“Wedding Crashers”) a frequent collaborator of Vaughn’s directs; John Michael Higgins (the scene stealer from “The Break-Up”) appears in a key role. It’s even set in his hometown of Chicago. Vaughn essentially plays the same character as in “Wedding Crashers” and “The Break-Up”, an obnoxious yet lovable motormouth who needs to overcome his own self-absorbed character flaws to achieve his goals. He’s interminably entertaining, cramming in gags and one-liners with natural ease.
Unfortunately like “The Break-Up” Vaughn’s presence is so commanding he dominates everyone around him, specifically the even better actor, Paul Giamatti. Giamatti is cast right as the neurotic worrisome Santa who’s suspect of his ability to continue as Santa. But any significant emotional attachment to his plight is overshadowed by Vaughn’s domineering.
It’s a Joel Silver (“The Matrix”, “Lethal Weapon”) production so much money has been put in front of the screen. The production values are high. Dobkin crafts a number of entertaining action set pieces including a rambunctious chase between Vince Vaughn and a horde of Salvation Army Santas. Many more expensive actors show up in supporting roles as well – an overcast Kevin Spacey performs well as the evil auditor, Rachel Weisz is lovely and endearing as Fred’s girlfriend, and Elizabeth Bank is the yummiest Santa’s Little Helper ever put to screen.
These subplots threaten to bloat and convolute the focus of the film. But Dobkin manages all the stars well, giving everyone enough screentime and barely avoiding breaking the holiday audience’s attention span.
When Christmas is saved in the end, Fred successfully redeems himself and everyone learns his or her lessons. The true meaning of Christmas is hit home once again with earnestness. It’s formulaic and corny, but it satisfies the needs of the genre. While the programming of “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “A Christmas Story” are not threatened by “Fred Claus”, you may want to pop this in the DVD player instead of the overplayed “Christmas Vacation”. Enjoy.
“Fred Claus” is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Warner Home Video