Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti, Miranda Richardson, Kevin Spacey, Rachel Weisz, John Michael Higgins, Elizabeth Banks, Kathy Bates and Christopher Bridges.
Despite the fact that director David Dobkin can't decide if he wants his film to be "Elf" or "Bad Santa," "Fred Claus" is a surprisingly nice and occasionally naughty spin-off of the traditional tale of ole' Saint Nick.
Of course, as we're told several times throughout the film, this film isn't really about Santa Claus (Paul Giamatti) at all...it's about his older brother, Fred (Vince Vaughn).
Fred grew up in Nick's shadow, as Nick began showing off his saintly ways at quite the early age. While Fred had made the commitment to be the "best big brother ever," Nick's increasing favor with his parents (Kathy Bates and Trevor Peacock) sends Fred down a road toward rebellious bitterness.
Unknown to most theologians (or at least I haven't learned this in my seminary classes yet), once a person becomes a saint they and their loved ones become ageless. This fact, of course, made me immediately wonder if "Fred Claus" would lead to a rash of Mother Theresa sightings.
But I digress.
St. Nick, as virtually the whole world knows, becomes Santa Claus and he and Mrs. Claus (Miranda Richardson) live at the North Pole doing, well, I suppose you know that part of the story.
Fred, on the other hand, is a repo man in Chicago whose girlfriend (Rachel Weisz) is about fed up with him and whose latest get-rich quick scheme finds him chased down the Chicago streets by a slew of Salvation Army Santas and landing in jail.
Despite years of separation, he calls his baby bro for the big bail out and, of course, the saintly Nick agrees on the condition that Fred come to the North Pole and help him out through the holidays.
If you've found yourself already cringing, then "Fred Claus" is clearly not the film for you. Much like most Christmas films in recent years, "Fred Claus" keeps it basic, aims low and, more often than not, hits its target.
Clearly aiming for the "Elf" audience despite the presence of the raunchily gifted Vaughn, the PG-rated "Fred Claus" is a remarkably safe film that certainly lacks the energy, spark and inventiveness of Vaughn and Dobkin's previous collaboration, "The Wedding Crashers."
Even with the lack of spark and the overwhelming feeling that several of these scenes feel almost directly lifted from Jon Favreau's "Elf," "Fred Claus" ends up working more often than it really should.
While the film has enough mythological and practical plot holes to fill an enormous Christmas stocking, Dan Fogelman's script deserves much of the credit for giving the film a pleasing balance of heart and humor. While it's arguable that "Fred Claus" contains too many subplots, Fogelman does a nice job of painting accessible characters and portraying them in ways that are both funny and endearing.
Unfortunately, one of the key problems with "Fred Claus" lies in the casting of Vaughn himself. While Vaughn can be quite captivating as a supporting actor or in a buddy flick, his lack of range becomes painfully obvious when he's asked to carry a flick. This wouldn't be quite so obvious had "Fred Claus" developed its own personality, but its similarity to "Elf" practically begs for Vaughn's performance to be compared to that of Will Ferrell.
In short, there is no comparison between the two actors. Whereas Ferrell could capture Buddy the Elf's sweetness, sincerity and humanity, Vaughn's Fred seems more sarcastic than sincere and more devious than the evil Clyde (Kevin Spacey), an efficiency expert sent to the North Pole to improve Santa's efficiency or shut him down (though it's never really explained under whose authority he's acting).
There were so many lines where I found myself thinking "Boy, that should have elicited an OOOH! or an AHHHHH!," but Vaughn's delivery more often than not left me with a response of "Nice line."
On the other hand, Paul Giamatti's seemingly inherent playful moroseness adds a delightful dimension to the saintly Nick, and Miranda Richardson is equally delightful as his loving wife.
Despite the all too obvious "Superman" reference, Kevin Spacey does well as "Four-Eyed Clyde," and Weisz easily gives her most relaxed, accessible performance. Kathy Bates' nagging mom shtick grows a bit weary, but Chris "Ludacris" Bridges has fun playing Santa's DJ elf.
John Michael Higgins adds both heart and levity to the proceedings as Willie, a head elf who is smitten by Santa's buxomy little helper (Elizabeth Banks).
The production design contributes greatly to the film's rising above mediocrity, and while the majority of the elves are played by real-life dwarves, Dobkin does occasionally employ special effects and reduces both Higgins and Bridges down to size.
The film's soundtrack fits the holiday quite nicely, though the film's occasional diversions into mainstream music occasionally felt jarring and a Ludacris Christmas rap over the closing credits felt out of place in this largely traditional holiday film.
Among the many rather horrid holiday flicks that we've seen in the past few years, "Fred Claus" rests slightly above average on the scale. While the film isn't destined to be a holiday classic, it's certainly a rather pleasant way to kick off the 2007 Christmas season.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic