Hollywood Product - Fred Claus
The holiday-movie season is apparently upon us
Genre: Costly Christmas Comedy
The pitch: Santa's bitter older brother, Fred (Vince Vaughn), reluctantly moves back to the North Pole after St. Nick (Paul Giamatti) bails him out of jail. Will Fred's bad attitude give a sinister efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey) a pretext to close down Santa's workshop?
Money shots: A sequence with angry Salvation Army Santas chasing Fred to the tune of "Surfin' Bird" tries way too hard. A funnier bit with Fred's legs hanging out of a tiny bunk bed looks like an outtake from Will Ferrell's Elf. Fred stamps the files of naughty children as "Nice" in an oddly moving act of rebellion. A montage of Fred making Christmas Eve toy deliveries features some decent slapstick.
Fashion statements: As a Chicago repo man, Vaughn wears a longshoreman's cap like a Viking wears a horned helmet. As Santa's sole human-size helper, Charlene, Elizabeth Banks wears a low-cut, vaguely slutty Christmas outfit suitable for a racy Rockettes holiday show. A Superman cape provides a crucial part of Spacey's backstory (appropriately, given that Spacey recently played the Man of Steel's arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor).
Best line: "You're taking a bus back to Elfistan, or wherever you're from," snaps Spacey as he fires some of the North Pole workforce.
Worst line: "I know you got more Blitzen in you than you realize!" Fred tells Santa's head elf, Willie (John Michael Higgins), when giving him dance lessons so he can woo Charlene. (Hey, if Jerry Seinfeld's bee can date Renee Zellweger's Bee Movie role, elfin/human relations should be no big deal.)
Hit single: The soundtrack features practically every famous Christmas song you've ever heard, but makes a joke of it when Donnie (Ludacris), the workshop DJ, plays nothing but "Here Comes Santa Claus" until Fred snaps. Oddly, the film ends with the non-Christmas tune "Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World" by Israel Kamakawiwo Olé.
Not-so-special effects: Higgins (a mainstay of Christopher Guest's comedies) and Ludacris play elf characters by having their faces creepily superimposed over the heads of actual diminutive actors. It's nearly as disturbing as those dead-eyed CGI elves from The Polar Express.
Cameos: Frank Stallone and a couple of other brothers to celebrities (including the sibling of a former U.S. president) take part in a "Siblings Anonymous" meeting that's cute, but feels more like a "Saturday Night Live" sketch part of a family movie.
Hey, wait a minute: The storybook prologue informs us that when people become saints, they get "frozen in time" along with their families. So Fred is hundreds of years old? If Fred marries his girlfriend (Oscar winner Rachel Weisz), will she become immortal, too? What if they get divorced? And does this hold true for all Christian saints, or just the ones involved with global holidays?
The bottom line: Vaughn and Wedding Crashers director David Dobkin try to mix the caustic comedy of Bad Santa with the yuletide whimsy of The Santa Clause and inevitably fall short of either goal. Admittedly the last half-hour finds some nice moments, and Giamatti's winning performance takes Santa from patient to anxious to outraged. Overall, though, it's as if Vaughn wanted to do his own version of Bill Murray's Scrooged, forgetting that nobody much liked Scrooged, either.