If it must be a requirement that every major movie star take part in at least one Yuletide rompand that's what it sure seems likethe actors of "Fred Claus" should have held out for a better script in lieu of selling their souls to the devil. Directed by David Dobkin with much of the same lewd sensibility of his last picture, 2005's terminally stupid "Wedding Crashers
," this supposed PG-rated family flick includes everything from a man verbally abusing a child and telling her she's going to get pregnant before she's twenty, to sex humor involving Santa "getting his sleigh up." None of it is funny for adults because it all seems so pedestrian and juvenile, while kids will probably get restless (and be inspired to ask a lot of questions) as they make their way through a slow-paced story about two bickering grown-up brothers learning to work out their problems and get along.
As the black sheep in the Claus family, Fred (Vince Vaughn) has spent his immortal life attempting to separate himself from younger brother Nicholas (Paul Giamatti). Thus, while the jolly St. Nick has delighted in passing out presents in the early morning hours of December 25 for hundreds of years, Fred has become a New York repo man with commitment issues. With his relationship with cute meter maid Wanda (Rachel Weisz) on the fritz, Fred begrudgingly accepts an invitation to travel to the North Pole and spend some quality time with Nick. Once there, Fred proceeds to shake up the old routinesin one scene, he hijacks the toy shop's Christmas song-playing deejay (Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges) and turns the elves into rock 'n' roll party animalsand resumes his feelings of resentment toward Nick. Nick's got an even bigger problem, however. Unforgiving efficiency expert Clyde (Kevin Spacey) is in town to monitor the goings-on as the holiday approaches. Three strikes, and Santa Claus's joband the materialistic side of Christmas itselfwill be over.
There is an intriguing film hidden deep below the surface of "Fred Claus," but for it to have come to fruition would have required a much-need overhaul of writer Dan Fogelman's (2006's "Cars
") junky, threadbare script. It is revealed early on that Santa Claus, his family members, and all of their significant others will always be immortal beings. Since Fred and, one presumes, Mama (Kathy Bates) and Papa Claus (Trevor Peacock) inhabit the populated real world away from the North Pole, how fantastically imaginative might it have been to go the way of a sort of Christmas-set, bloodsucking-free version of "Interview with the Vampire" and explore what living forever really entails? Since Fred and the rest of them do not age or die throughout the decades, must they constantly be on the go, moving from one job and location to the next to keep their identities secret? And what does this mean for Fred's girlfriend, Wanda, who, after finding out her beau's lineage, takes the shocking information in stride and ridiculously does not have a single question to ask him? A potentially provocative exploration of these notions are irresponsibly never dealt with once they are brought up, as director David Dobkin is only too happy to get to his next predictable pratfall or slapstick scene of Fred and Nick bickering on an out-of-control snowmobile or Fred beating up a slew of Salvation Army Santas in a department store.
Until the last half-hour or so, "Fred Claus" is crushingly boring, listless and bankrupt of good ideas. Fred's relationship with Nick, effectively set up in a prologue showing them as children, holds no weight once they are adults, and their scenes together through the first two-thirds of the picture are either forgettable or teeth-gratingly unctuous. Vince Vaughn (2006's "The Break-Up
") and particularly an off-his-game Paul Giamatti (2007's "Shoot 'Em Up
") act throughout as if they just lost a bet and are being forced to commit thespianic atrocities in front of the camera. There is no fire or passion in their eyes, nor is there a detectable connection to the material.
As Fred's love interest Wanda, Rachel Weisz (2006's "The Fountain
") continues the tradition of Oscar-winning actresses turning to crap movies as soon as they receive a gold statuette. Weisz is good with what she has to do, but it's not much. As Mrs. Claus, the writing and performance by Miranda Richardson (2005's "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
") turn this heretofore warm character into a nagging harpy whose sole defining characteristic is her constant complaints over her husband's eating habits and expanding waistline. As Mama Claus, Kathy Bates (2006's "Failure to Launch
") adds another notch to her belt playing an underutilized parental figure. John Michael Higgins (2007's "Evan Almighty
"), adorable as love-struck elf Willie, and Kevin Spacey (2006's "Superman Returns
"), intense and impacting as the Scrooge-like Clyde, deliver the most well-rounded performances of the group. Spacey's dark reading of his character does not always comfortably mesh with the movie's lightweight tone, but it is still a great deal more interesting (and, by the end, multi-dimensional) than anything else in view.
With the slim plot spinning its wheels and the special effects looking hardly any better than those in the 22-year-old "Santa Claus: The Movie," the film finally picks up speed during a spry sequence at a Siblings Anonymous meeting, with everyone from Frank Stallone to Roger Clinton to Stephen Baldwin showing up to talk out their grievances over their more popular brothers. A flying-around-the-world-delivering-presents montage soon after (scored to The Waitresses' bouncy "Christmas Wrapping") boosts up the energy level, even if it neglects as usual to explain the logistics of such, and a quiet moment where the North Pole inhabitants crowd around a magic ball to see the happiness they have brought to families everywhere would be purely magical if it had earned it (it doesn't). The final scenes are passably sweet in their own way, too, making the viewer wish that they wouldn't have had to sit through close to ninety minutes of low-brow monotony to get to it.
These days, a great, or even very good, Christmas picture is rare. For every heartwarming and funny "Elf
" or beautiful modern classic like "The Polar Express
," there are a dozen miserable lumps of coal like "Christmas with the Kranks
," "The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause
" and "Deck the Halls
." The above-average ensemble of "Fred Claus" ultimately do not equal out to success, and the film, with its target audience left as an unsolved mystery, joins the unsavory ranks of holiday entertainment that isn't entertaining and has little holiday cheer. This is a sinful missed opportunity for all involved.