Christmas movies generally fall into two broad categories: The traditional ones like "It's a Wonderful Life," "A Christmas Carol," and "A Christmas Story," and the gimmicky ones, usually comedies, like "The Santa Clause," "Elf," and "Fred Claus." It's not that either category is any better than the other; rather, it's how good the individual films turn out. In the case of "Fred Claus," it didn't turn out too well.
The gimmick in 2007's "Fred Claus" is that Santa has a brother. And while Santa is steadfastly nice, his brother is definitely naughty. The movie explores well-trod "Scrooge" territory in showing us a bah-humbug type who turns his life around by learning the true spirit of Christmas. Certainly, one cannot complain about the sincerity of the message, if only the idea weren't so timeworn and so wholly expected. This is a film whose plot a person could foresee from beginning to end and probably never miss a shot.
Fred and Nicholas Claus are born several years apart in a tiny cottage in the Bavarian woods (or some fairy-tale place) many centuries ago. Fred is the older brother and loves his new little brother very much. For a while, that is. Until sibling rivalry develops. (Remember Tommy Smothers: "Mom always liked you best"?) The younger brother starts acting so nobly that his parents begin to show a clear preference for him over Fred. Nick is the perfect child, the one his parents adore. As the years pass, Fred begins to resent his brother Nick for always behaving so generously, so magnanimously, so unselfishly toward those around him. While Fred becomes bitter, Nick becomes a saint. And we all know what becomes of saints: They become frozen in time. Fred and Nick and their parents stop aging, and Saint Nick gets the job of delivering Christmas gifts to good little girls and boys. Meanwhile, Fred becomes a repo man in present-day Chicago. So while Nick gives things away, Fred takes things back. Bah, humbug.
When Fred gets into trouble with the police and winds up in jail, he asks Nick to bail him out. Nick agrees to loan Fred the money and then some, but only if Fred will come to the North Pole and help him out with this year's Christmas chores. Fred reluctantly agrees.
The film pretty much wastes a good cast on mediocre characters. Vince Vaughn plays Fred Claus, and the actor does so in his usual slick, fast-talking, wisecracking, con-man style. For about ninety-nine percent of the story, the character is a jerk; most unlikable. He's supposed to be a Scrooge, but he's even more unpleasant than Dickens's Scrooge because Fred shows us he's at least a little bit human, and that hurts even worse. Without a miraculous Christmas Eve intervention, Dickens's Scrooge could never have turned his emotionless life around, but in Fred's case we see in him somebody who could be a nicer, better person but refuses to be. It makes us disapprove of him all the more.
Paul Giamatti plays Fred's brother, Nick (or Santa to most of us). Giamatti is a fine actor but seems terribly ill at ease in this part. He's supposed to be a saint whose patience is being tried every moment, mostly by his brother, until he finally goes over the edge. It seems an odd Christmas movie that shows us the real Santa Claus having a nervous breakdown. At least when Billy Bob Thornton played "Bad Santa," he was of the department-store variety, not the genuine article.
Kathy Bates and Trevor Peacock play Mother and Papa Claus, probably chosen because they look suited for the roles but pretty much doing little or nothing to help out the proceedings. Rachel Weisz plays Wanda, Fred's English girlfriend. Ms. Weisz really is English, but why the filmmakers force her to speak in so broad an English accent is anybody's guess. I suppose they didn't want audiences missing the fact that she was from England, but what does her being English have to do with anything? Miranda Richardson, who is also English, plays Nick's wife and speaks with an American accent. Go figure. John Michael Higgins plays Willie, Santa's head elf. He's in love with Charlene (Elizabeth Banks), Santa's "little helper" and a knockout blonde, but Willie is too shy and too insecure about his size to say anything to her. This subplot basically just pads out the story and becomes an excuse for what we know is eventually going to happen.
The villain of the piece is Clyde Northcut, devilishly played by Kevin Spacey. Thank goodness for Spacey for without him we wouldn't have much of a movie. After all, the villains are often the best parts of any melodrama. Northcut is a stone-cold efficiency expert bent on destroying Santa and his whole operation. He works for the board of directors that oversees Santa's holiday activities, and if Santa doesn't make and deliver the requisite number of toys for Christmas, he will fire him and move the entire enterprise to the South Pole under somebody's else's guidance.
David Dobkin ("Shanghai Knights," "Wedding Crashers") directed the movie, and certainly he has had some experience with big-screen comedies. Unfortunately, he's saddled with a script that doesn't seem to know for what audience it's aiming. Is this a movie primarily for kids? I don't think so because Vaughn is much too caustic and cynical, and Santa is much too neurotic and twitchy. Is it a movie primarily for adults? I don't think so because there are too many juvenile antics and children's story elements in it. Is it a movie primarily for family viewing? Presumably so, yet there's not enough in it to appeal equally to all age groups.
What the film does have are glorious sets and costumes and a sweet ending we can see coming a mile away. If you liked the look of the North Pole in "The Santa Clause" or "The Polar Express," you'll like the look of Santa's world and workshop in this film as well. It's colorful and resplendent with baubles and bangles and knickknacks and toys and presents and sheer techno-whiz scope. So, yes, the eye candy and production values are a delight. And the movie's ending is everything we would anticipate in a holiday film, too, partially redeeming the rest of the film's dour atmosphere.
Unfortunately, the movie cannot hurdle a final obstacle: It's reasonable for a person to assume that the story is a comedy, yet it has very few laughs. The cutest scene doesn't even concern Fred very much at all but involves famous siblings Frank Stallone, Roger Clinton, and Stephen Baldwin. Otherwise, is it really funny to see Santa Claus in a knockdown, drag-out fight with his own brother? Silly it is. Frenetic it is. Loud it is. Funny it's not. A comedy without laughs is like a Christmas without presents. "Fred Claus" just isn't the Christmas treat it should have been.
Warner engineers present the film in its original 2.40:1 widescreen aspect ratio on one side of the disc and in a 1.33:1 pan-and-scan ratio on the other. The P&S cuts out a substantial amount of the film right and left, so I watched in widescreen, where an anamorphic transfer helps bring out the richness of the colors. The scenes at the North Pole are especially impressive in their bright, glittering hues. A few moments seem too dark now and then, but mostly the video is a joy, with definition fluctuating from crystal clear to slightly soft, and with film grain imparting a suitable film-like texture to the image.
Throughout the bulk of the movie the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is pretty much nondescript. Since dialogue makes up maybe ninety percent of the film, there's not a lot for the audio track to do to flex its muscles. There are a couple of sequences that involve Santa's sleigh flying through the air, and here we find a decent dynamic range and a little surround activity. Otherwise, we must content ourselves with the audio simply doing its assigned task of sounding smooth and natural in the midrange, with the rear/side speakers imparting a bit of ambient bloom to the music.
There are not a lot of extras on the disc, but there are enough to qualify it as above average. First, I've already mentioned that the disc comes with the film in two screen formats. Next, there's an audio commentary with director David Dobkin for those of you more interested in how and why the moviemakers decided upon the things they did; and that's followed by over twenty-five minutes of deleted scenes in non-anamorphic widescreen.
After those primary extras we get twenty-eight scene selections; a series of trailers at start-up; access to a digital copy of the film; and an attractively embossed slipcover for the keep case. English, French, and Spanish are the spoken language choices, with French and Spanish subtitles, and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Excellent production values, a good cast, and a lovable ending cannot make up for a lackluster script most of the way. Nor can the Scrooge-like conversation of the main character make up for his being so unlikable and making our viewing so unpleasant for so long. Worse than anything else, though, the movie's comedy lacks requisite humor, and the movie's tone keeps it from finding a specific target audience. "Fred Claus" is not an entirely bad picture, but it is a decidedly bland one.