Warner Bros. // 2007 // 115 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 25th, 2008
Santa's brother is coming to town.
Why are Christmas films always so dark and gloomy? Every year, I find myself asking this same question. Christmas is supposedly a time of cheer and goodwill and warmth and so on, but ever since Dickens wrote his wonderful "A Christmas Carol", we've had holiday stories centered around very unpleasant people who only find redemption and happiness during the final moments. Fred Claus is another one of these dour Christmas tales, and one of the least effective ones I have ever seen. The movie is 45% gloom, 45% saccharine Hallmark material, and 10% worldly wisecracking. Not only is this a most unsuccessful mix of ingredients, there's simply no humor to be found.
Well, there's humor in one scene. It's a delightful five minutes in a support group where brothers of famous people meet to share stories. We hear extremely amusing testimonies from the likes of Frank Stallone, Roger Clinton, and Stephen Baldwin. Attending this meeting is Fred Claus (Vince Vaughn, The Break-Up), who is, yes, the brother of Santa Claus (Paul Giamatti, American Splendor). How best to describe Fred? I already have described him by telling you that he is played by Vince Vaughn. If you've seen Vaughn's fast-talking, cynical, and loopy monologue routine before, you know what you're in for. Vaughn tones down the crasser elements from films like Wedding Crashers and Swingers, but he's still basically the same character.
Fred begrudges his noble saint of a brother, and is not happy about the idea of going to pay a visit to the North Pole. However, that's what must be done if Fred is going to mooch $50,000 off of Santa for a sleazy business deal. When Fred arrives, he causes problems, gets into fights with his family, and gives extra joy to an efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey, American Beauty) who would love nothing better than to shut down Christmas. From here, we get an hour or so of completely unfunny bickering and fighting and sulking punctuated with bits of eye-rolling sentiment and Vaughn's verbal diarrhea, and the audience keeps checking their watches. We take a brief trip back to Fred's hometown of Chicago, before he decides to make everything right with his family and (you guessed it) save Christmas.
The movie is a curious disaster, much too gloomy and unpleasant to be any fun, much too dumb for adults to appreciate, and a bit too crass and confusing for kids. The casting is mostly all wrong. Vaughn simply isn't able to make his personality work in a family Christmas movie, particularly during the scenes where he is required to deliver noble speeches. Paul Giamatti is the most unconvincing Santa I've ever seen. When is somebody going to realize that John Goodman needs to play the part? (I'm not counting that episode of Futurama). Rachel Weisz and Kathy Bates are both guilty of playing down to the material, and come across quite poorly. Kevin Spacey's role is interesting; the character enters the film as Lex Luthor, and exits as Superman, quite literally! In fact, I'm pretty sure that the character is actually Lex Luthor, taking some time to indulge his secret fetish. Spacey could have stolen the film with this role, but his reserved level of enthusiasm for the part keeps him on the same level as the rest of the characters.
The hi-def transfer is reasonably good. Blacks are pretty deep, and flesh tones are well-balanced. However, facial detail is somewhat lacking. The surprising cheesiness of some of the special effects is also highlighted by the 1080p transfer. Audio is reasonably solid, with Christophe Beck's sappy score blending nicely with the rather frantic sound design. Supplements are a mixed bag. You know that I clamor for Blu-ray releases to offer new supplemental content. Fred Claus tries to deliver, but I'm still not happy. Not even with two additional discs of content exclusive to this Blu-ray release. How could I be such a grinch? Let me explain. The first disc is devoted to a digital copy of the film. Boring. This trend is getting tiresome quickly. The second bonus disc offers a DVD game called "Fred Claus: Race to Save Christmas." I played the game. It's stupid. Even young kids will think it's stupid. No need to bother. What a disappointment.
For supplements of substance, you'll need to stick to the material included on the DVD release. Director David Dobkin provides a decent commentary that offers the usual behind-the-scenes info. We also get 25 minutes of deleted scenes, which aren't really any worse than anything else in the film. A somewhat amusing little chat between Vaughn and Giamatti is onhand. Three featurettes (thankfully presented in HD) are also included: "Pause for Claus: Elves Tell All," "Sibling Rivalry," and "Meet the Other Claus." Finally, we get a "Ludacrismas" music video. Heh.
Strangely enough, the movie is similar in many ways to the The Santa Clause series. I didn't think I'd find myself saying this, but this is actually inferior to those tired Tim Allen films, because it simply doesn't work on any level. The Santa Clause movies work as formulaic, feel-good family experiences. Fred Claus can't even get that basic element down. This film is a lump of coal. Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Japanese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Additional Scenes
* DVD Game
* Music Video
* Digital Copy