Gutenfilm Presents: A Christmas Beeracle: Fred Claus
A spur-of-the-moment decision to pick out a Christmas movie led me to this little Vince Vaughn vehicle, a strange formula indeed: the normally very crude Vaughn and a host of other big name actors such as Paul Giamatti and Kevin Spacey, in a family oriented Christmas movie. It’s even more surprising that they actually got these actors to even be in the movie. I can’t imagine how they were convinced to do so, since it certainly was not the director David Dobkin, who joined after most of the actors. Either way, as expected, the movie is not good. A winter six pack for wasted talent!
Fred Claus tells the story of Santa’s older brother, disillusioned in childhood by his magical sibling’s constant, exuberant one-upmanship. An adult Fred (Vince Vaughn) is bitter, cynical and estranged from Nick (Paul Giamatti). He makes promises to his girlfriend that he cannot keep and his only friend is a young orphan who visits his house every once in while. When Fred finds himself in jail, he makes a last-resort call to Nick, who will only bail out Fred and provide money to Fred for an investment if Fred comes to visit and help out at the North Pole. Naturally, Fred starts to stir up trouble, getting the elves involved in dance numbers.
Of greater worry to Nick is the visit of Mr. Northcutt (Kevin Spacey), an efficiency expert with a villainous streak who is looking to shut down the North Pole. As things spiral out of control, and the North Pole draws closer to being closed forever, Fred realizes how awful of a person he is. As always, it is this late-game revelation that allows him to save the day when Santa gets fired and cannot deliver the presents. Then everything is OK, as even Mr. Northcutt becomes nice and everyone is nice to each other and every little problem from throughout the film is handily tied off in the last two minutes of the film.
It’s almost disappointing that Fred Claus actually has some very mildly funny parts, mostly due to a pretty vicious mean streak in the first half (or about as mean as a family film can get). Early on in the film, to pay for his poorly-explained investment, Fred tries to pose as a Salvation Army Santa to get a little extra money. This leads to him getting accosted and then chased through the mall by an army of Santas, because Fred does not have the authorization to collect money. While I love a good dose of dark humor (Bad Santa is one of my favorites), I had wished for a more aggressively horrible movie. This one is bad, but certainly not terrible, due mostly to the cast. While there are some clever digs at the commercialization of Christmas, and the way that Santa’s operation is a corporation-run business, some of the other instances of humor are simply in poor taste. Maybe hiring the director of Wedding Crashers to do a family film wasn’t such a great idea; Elizabeth Banks in a miniskirt playing a character referred to as “Santa’s Little Helper” was just a little bit creepy. And that kinda funny stuff at the beginning? That was all there was that even brought me close to a smile.
Of course, it does try way too hard, from violent CIA-style security elves, to Willie the head elf being in love with (but not noticed by) a girl and having to be subsequently coached in love by Fred. I’m fairly certain that by this point Vince Vaughn is paid for every zinger he utters, and he must have made a mint from this film, turning up the Vaugn-ness to the upteenth degree. The cartoony sound effects, which I thought would not have gotten any worse after Santa Clause 3, have now graduated to the point of the sound editor downloading an open source package of Looney Tunes sound effects. That is not an exaggeration.
I’ll need to dig deeper for awful Christmas movies, because again, while Fred Claus was stupid and boring, it was far from the travesty that makes this feature such a demented kind of fun. I think there are some truly bad ones on the horizon, however–including some that have a full page of one- and zero-star reviews on Netflix, and a couple that appear on nearly every list of bad Christmas movies that has been compiled. This isn’t over yet, and this phase is undoubtedly just a brief lull in a bitter storm.