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 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),
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.
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.