A full-on Vince Vaughn charm offensive gives loose-limbed holiday tale Fred Claus its own successful, charismatic personality and appeal. Re-teaming Wedding Crashers director David Dobkin and Vaughn for the third time, the movie wraps Vaughn’s trademark quasi-improvisational runs of passive-aggressive patter around two wan storylines — of fraternal tension and Christmas under siege — making for a pleasant, form-fitted vehicle of engagingly manic buoyance, if also one that pays inconsistent attention to its own through lines.
Though he’s had many hits, Vaughn has yet to prove himself as a stand-alone box office draw, and Fred Claus represents the biggest challenge in that regard to date. Dodgeball, Wedding Crashers and The Break-Up all opened to the tune of $30 million-plus, but had the advantage of high-profile costars. While staffed with capable, recognizable supporting players, Fred Claus is being sold on Vaughn’s name alone. Still, a big opening for the movie seems guaranteed. The question is whether Warner Bros. can make inroads with the same audience that made Will Ferrell’s Elf a PG-rated smash four years ago in the same frame; this will depend on whether fans of Vaughn’s edgier fare return for encore servings.
Fred Claus (Vaughn) has lived his entire life in his younger brother’s very large shadow. He tried, but could hardly live up to the example set by Nicholas (Paul Giamatti), who was a perfect little saint. True to form, Nicholas grew up to be the model of giving (a period piece introduction shows us some of the Claus family history, while explaining that everyone’s ages are frozen upon Nick’s sainthood), while Fred became the polar opposite: a fast-talking, rakishly self-centered repo man whose daydream schemes and serial absentmindedness leave his girlfriend, traffic cop Wanda (Rachel Weisz), perpetually exasperated.
Needing a sum of cash to close on an investment deal, Fred
turns to impersonating a Salvation Army Santa Claus, which lands him in jail.
He then calls his brother. Nicholas agrees to help Fred on one condition: that he come to the
North Pole for a long-delayed visit, and “earn” the money he needs by helping
out in Santa’s workshop. Old fraternal tensions, mostly of the one-sided
variety, come bubbling to the surface, and matters are further put at risk when
stern “efficiency expert” Clyde Northcut (Kevin Spacey) arrives to audit
Nicholas’ enterprise, putting the future of the jolliest holiday of the
year in jeopardy.
Fred Claus works first and foremost as a vehicle for Vaughn’s goosed-up, chatterbox patter; key to the entire enterprise is an appreciation of the actor as verbose, besieged and aggrieved. This means there’s little for Mama and in particular Papa Claus (Kathy Bates and Trevor Peacock, respectively) to do, and there are a few laid-track story strands that don’t bring much to the movie. The movie’s mandate is clearly broad appeal, which also leads to the somewhat sigh-inducing inclusion of goosed-up, slide-scale sound effects during a chase sequence involving multiple Santas. A couple of these impromptu slapstick bits, like a snowball fight between Fred and Nick, don’t rise above the level of distractible interjections, but others (a finger-snapping dance montage set to “Rubberneckin'”) get one’s blood pumping even though their narrative inessentiality is completely transparent.
Instead of answering genuine questions born of the narrative
(Are the Claus family immortal, and if so how would that affect Fred’s
relationship with Wanda? Exactly who has discretionary approval over Christmas?),
Dan Fogelman’s script wastes an awful lot of time dawdling on petty, and less
interesting, matters. Still, there are also some genuine and pleasant surprises
in the narrative, including a “Siblings Anonymous” meeting with cameos from the
brothers of Sylvester Stallone, Alec Baldwin and former President Bill Clinton. In case there were still doubts, meanwhile, Dobkin proves himself a
gifted, intuitive comedic director. Even if one has qualms with the story
choices, it’s easy to recognize the effective manner in which he stages a scene
and draws out naturalistic performances and reactions.
Vaughn, as previously mentioned, is innately charming, a fact of which Fred Claus serves as the umpteenth example. Always a savvy professional, Giamatti injects a few small, smart notes of stress and vexation into his performance as the beleaguered Nicholas. Other actors aren’t given as much to do, though Spacey does subtly channel some Lex Luthor villainy, all of which pays off in a scene that amusingly touches on Superman.
The film also makes hearty use of motion capture digital head replacement, in similar fashion to the Wayans brothers’ movie Little Man. While not without its occasional seams, visual effects supervisor Alex Bicknell’s work with John Michael Higgins and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges — the former as Santa’s second-in-command, the latter as an elf workshop deejay — will surely delight younger viewers. For the complete original review, from Screen International, click here.