November 12, 2007

Santa Claus? More Like Stupid Claus

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Fred Claus left me with lots of questions: What is it about Christmas that gets otherwise well-regarded actors to jump into a poorly planned holiday knockoff? And why do Christmas movies come out in mid-November? These are the types of questions that one might ask when he hears that three of his friends went to go see David Dobkin’s Fred Claus. Although it certainly has its faults, Fred Claus is not one of the worst Christmas mockeries that you could spend two hours with.

The story of Fred Claus begins just as Nick (Santa) Claus is born. The camera rolls over a secluded, snow-covered hut deep in the woods where the Claus family looks delightfully upon their new son. Included is Nick’s older brother, Fred, who pledges that he’ll be the best brother ever.

However, the promise does not stand the test of time, and the relationship between the two brothers takes a turn for the worst. Nick unwittingly one-ups his brother with everything he does, taking all of their parents’ love and kindness in the process. As a result, Fred feels neglected and soon becomes resentful of his family.

Fast forward 30 or so years, and Fred (Vince Vaughn) is residing in Chicago, where he is a fast-talking repo man with dreams of starting his own business. Fred’s quick wit backfires on him, though, when he tries to raise money for his start-up with a phony street-jingling fundraiser. Following a wild chase scene involving at least a dozen angry Salvation Army Santas, Fred finds himself in jail without enough money for bail. Fred is forced to seek help from Nick, now affectionately known as Santa Claus. Nick (Paul Giamatti) agrees to fund Fred’s bail, on the condition that Fred earns it back by coming up to the North Pole and working in Santa’s toy shop. Fred proves to be a veritable sparkplug at the toy establishment, but also a potentially liability to Santa, who is struggling to meet the Christmas present quota.

In his hypothetical real-world Christmas, Dobkin takes advantage of different aspects of the holiday spirit, altering them to almost fit in with real life. For example, the classic Grinch who stole Christmas is replaced by an icy efficiency expert named Mr. Northcut, expertly played by Kevin Spacey, bent on shutting Santa and his business down.

Maintaining the translation of classic Christmas to the real world, Mr. Northcut even gives a PowerPoint presentation in an attempt to prove that Santa’s workshop no longer has the capacity to keep up with childrens’ demands. He threatens to replace it with a streamlined factory in which run by machines and replace elves. These parallels between real life and Christmas are consistently imaginative and humorous, and keep the movie rolling, even when the plot hits a dry spot. The acting in Fred Claus can be described as uninspiring but not unbearable. Even though Vaughn has the ability to carry a movie, he is at his best when he can play off of a costar.

However, in this case there is no bright and youthful Owen Wilson to contrast Vaughn’s slightly moody and sour personality. Paul Giamatti, despite a solid acting job, doesn’t help any either; he neither provides a good contrast to Vaughn’s traits, nor is a strong enough personality himself to push the movie in a given direction.

This is more a casting error though, as Giamatti gives a worthwhile go at a version of Santa Claus who is dangerously overweight from eating too many cookies, and is exhausted from having to plan Christmas for all the children in the world. Paralleling the acting, the dialogue relies on Vince Vaughn’s dry humor. As in most of the movies that he stars in, Vaughn dominates the dialogue with his rambling, borderline-sociopathic monologues. These diatribes eventually turn into many of the highlights of the movie, as the rest of the characters are ultimately superficial and boring.

Taking everything into account, Fred Claus should not be beaten to death. I entered the theater with mixed feelings about Fred Claus, and exited with the same disposition. On one hand, no one likes to see a talented comedian embarrassed (see Will Ferrell in Elf ).

On the other, I had some persistent glimmer of hope that this one could be different. Maybe it would take me back to the glory days of holiday-mockery (see The Santa Clause with Tim Allen). However, coming out of the cinema—and even now—my mind isn’t completely made up. While it is clear that Fred Claus is mainly fluff, I don’t feel like I wasted my money. The movie has its downfalls. It dawns on you about halfway through the movie that it is undeniably cliché and predictable. Vaughn’s dialogue also tends to wear on you.

Eventually, even the charm of a real-life Christmas ceases to be charming. Therefore, seeing Fred Claus in theaters is a judgment call; expecting a holiday-season gem is grossly overestimating the value of this movie, but if what you crave is a cheery and moderately humorous holiday film, then Fred Claus is exactly what the doctor ordered.