Review by Jack Foley
CHRISTMAS films are notorious for overdosing on the schmaltz and ramming the cuddly family message home. But Fred Claus at least seemed like it might have some fun playing around with the genre.
The film stars Vince Vaughn as Fred Claus, the misunderstood older brother of saintly Nicholas (Paul Giamatti), who has spent most of his life in Santa’s shadow.
When his latest scam goes wrong and he’s faced with a period in jail and being dumped by his girlfriend (Rachel Weisz), Frank reaches out to Nicholas and asks for help – which Nic agrees to on the condition that he comes to the North Pole and work off the debt.
But Frank’s presence provides a disruptive influence to the elves and comes at a bad time for the Pole, as it faces being shutdown by a ruthless efficiency inspector (Kevin Spacey) who feels it is no longer able to keep up with demand.
Certainly, all the elements appear to be in place for an edgy take on the Christmas formula but they’re consistently squandered by a screenplay that repeatedly fails to strike the right balance between slapstick and mush.
Vaughn, in particular, fares badly as Fred – his fast-talking, improvisational style reign-deered into a frustrating degree so that his character is more annoying than funny.
Giamatti, at least, ensures that Santa is warm and sympathetic even though some of the more interesting character traits (such as his over-eating and lack of libido) are only ever hinted at rather than explored.
But quite why Weisz feels her character needs an annoying cockney accent is just one of many missteps the film takes en route to dampening any festive cheer viewers may feel towards it.
David Dobkins’ direction feels contrived and quite often forced, a lot of the special effects fail to convince and there’s an annoying voiceover to book-end proceedings. Creepy, too, are the elves – especially John Michael Higgins’ Willy, whose head has been digitally placed on the body of a little person. It’s disturbing more than endearing.
The film rallies briefly during a couple of nice gags involving a Siblings Anonymous meeting (featuring cameos from the not-so famous brothers of real stars) and a surprise back story for Spacey – but they only leave you lamenting what might have been.
Fred Claus is therefore a horribly disappointing experience that smothers any potential to be funny with the need to be sentimental and preachy. Not so much “ho ho ho” as “ho dear”!
Running time: 1hr 56mins
UK DVD Release: November 24, 2008