Fred Claus wasn’t a great movie. I give Director David Dobkin, who also directed star Vince Vaughn in one of my favorite movies Wedding Crashers, a lot of credit for trying to bring some grown-up elements to your basic Santa Claus story (someone wants to stop Christmas and while it looks like the villain will succeed, in the end good wins over reformable evil). But, in the end, without Vaughn, I don’t think this would have been much of a movie. He basically plays the same character he did in Crashers, which is pretty much the same character he plays in everything. That’s not a complaint mind you. Vince Vaughn is like AC/DC records, I don’t care if they keep doing the same thing over and over again because I generally like the end product. I will say that there were lines seemingly lifted right from Crashers. I didn’t make any notes, but I feel like there are a lot of lines borrowed/re-used from Vaugn and Owen Wilson’s opening with the couple who are getting a divorce. Anyway, the plot revolves around two brothers, Nick (Paul Giamatti) and Fred (Vaughn) Claus. Nick’s generosity makes him a saint somehow (though God is never mentioned oddly enough) and when you become a saint your parents, immediate family and spouse all become immortal (huh?). So, while Nick’s making toys at the North Pole, Fred is a repo man who wants to start his own business, but he needs some start-up money that he asks his brother for. In exchange for the cash, Nick says Fred has to come to the North Pole and work in the naughty/nice department. MEANWHILE, there’s an efficiency expert sent from some kind of holiday executive board (as far as I know this is never actually explained, but this bad guy says his organization is getting rid of the Easter Bunny among other holiday changes). The bad guy is played by Kevin Spacey. Spacey does all kinds of things to sabotage Santa, which means he’ll get shut down and operations will be moved to the South Pole. While he’s there, Vaughn tries to get the elves and other folks to loosen up and have fun.
Everyone does a good job in their roles. John Michael Higgins and Ludacris play elves, while Elizabeth Banks plays a more human-sized character (again, this isn’t really explained as far as I caught). I kept comparing this movie to Elf, which is my favorite Christmas movie to come out in a decade. It’s got similar themes with the real world and Santa’s one interacting, relationships being built, nearly destroyed and then rebuilt and lots of funny moments, but Fred Claus just doesn’t get it’s emotional hooks in me like Elf does. There are really fun moments like when Vaughn gets the elves dancing and an early one in which Vaughn gets chased by a bunch of Salvation Army Santas for panhandling in a Santa hat without authorization. I think what threw me off most was that the tone kept shifting between a family movie and a more adult one. Heck, my two favorite moments speak to that. The dancing is very kid-friendly and fun while the Santa fight is a bit more mean spirited. Elf seemed to balance those varying elements majestically, while Fred keeps shifting quickly and obviously back and forth, pulling you out of the story. There’s also an underlying darkness that Vaughn brings that I’m not sure was intended (when he’s framed for doing bad things and gets tricked by Spacey into disliking his brother even more, he looks like he’s riding the Horse instead of just feeling betrayed).
So, I wouldn’t really recommend Fred Claus to you unless you’re a Vince Vaughn completist (and if you are you’ve probably already seen it) because of the strange tone shifts. Instead, go watch Elf or White Christmas, it’s an oldie but a goody.