Like an obese Santa grunting and wheezing as he hoists himself out of a low-sitting chair, so are the desperate gasps of “Fred Claus” as it runs through its creaky old Christmas-oriented sappiness and its slapdash story and its sub-Tim-Allen-level shtick. It’s like they took the most tiresome elements of 10 different holiday films and patched them together into one ugly quilt.
An ashamed and subdued Vince Vaughn plays the title character, a devil-may-care repo man who is jealous of the adoration that his brother Santa Claus (Paul Giamatti) gets for his yearly benevolence. It doesn’t help that Mom (Kathy Bates) always liked St. Nick best, too, ever since the boys were kids several hundred years ago. (It is “explained” — by which I mean, a narrator says some words that are supposed to convince us — that the magic of being a saint halts the aging process not just on the saint himself but on his spouse and immediate family members. I await the Vatican’s rebuttal.)
Fred has a faithful girlfriend, Wanda (Rachel Weisz), that he takes for granted, and he dreams of opening an off-track betting parlor. Needing $50,000 to get this dubious enterprise off the ground, he calls Nick at the North Pole. (Don’t ask why Santa Claus would have that kind of cash lying around.) Santa, against the wishes of his sensible wife (Miranda Richardson), tells Fred that if he’ll come help out during the Christmas rush, he’ll give him the loan.
What ensues is a surprisingly careless assortment of dangling plot threads, wasted characters, and ham-fisted attempts to rustle up some Christmas spirit. Dan Fogelman’s screenplay is awash in ineptitude; characters like the Claus boys’ mother and Wanda disappear for most of the film, while Fred and Nick’s dad (Trevor Peacock) is in several scenes yet doesn’t have a single line. I understand he has to be present because the saint thing means he can’t be dead, but seriously, couldn’t you come up with something for the character to do?
There’s a villain, Clyde (Kevin Spacey), an efficiency expert from “The Board” (evidently the same one that governs the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny) who arrives at Santa’s village at the same time as Fred with threats of closing the place down. He lays down some arbitrary rules. First, he’ll be keeping close tabs, and if Santa’s operation gets three strikes before Christmas, he shuts the place down. On the other hand, if there are less than three strikes, “I’m required to send back a positive report.” Also, Santa is not allowed to tell anyone who Clyde is or why he’s there. Why? No reason. Purely arbitrary.
Naturally, Fred’s casual attitude disrupts things at the toy factory and gets Santa some strikes, and there’s a truly embarrassing sequence where Fred and a couple elves dance atop a table to a dance-club remix of an Elvis Presley song while a throng of elves cheer them on.
Man, this thing is all over the place. Did I mention Fred has an orphan friend back in Chicago, a young black kid named Slam (Bobb’e J. Thompson)? Well, he does. I don’t know why, but he does.
And then there’s a scene where Fred, fed up with his annoying family, goes to a support group for the siblings of famous people. That’s a funny idea, but it doesn’t go anywhere. It’s there so you’ll say, “Haw haw! They got Frank Stallone and Roger Clinton and one of the lesser Baldwins to be in the movie! Haw haw!”
Oh, and one of the lead elves, Willie (John Michael Higgins), is in love with Santa’s assistant, Charlene (Elizabeth Banks) — who, apart from the Clauses, is the only normal-size person living at the North Pole. (This is not explained.) Fred has to help Willie muster the courage to tell Charlene how he feels. Why? To pad out the running time, I assume. There’s no thematic or story-related reason for it.
The film is a mess, in other words, frantically but joylessly directed by David Dobkin (“Wedding Crashers”). Giamatti and Vaughn have an amusing fraternal rapport, but it’s under-utilized in favor of sight gags where ninja elves protect Santa and where Fred has to sleep on a tiny bed. The tone varies wildly, turning on a dime from slapstick to tearjerker, never getting a solid footing, and there’s no … no … well, not to be pedantic, but the movie has no point. Fred is an ill-defined character to begin with, so it’s unclear what he’s supposed to be learning in all this. The spirit of Christmas? To love his family? That there’s no such thing as a “naughty” kid? All of these and more are hinted at, but there’s never a moment where everything clicks, where you say, “Ahh, now this character has reached the end of his arc.”
Have you ever seen someone start to slip on a patch of ice, but they catch themselves, but they can’t get their balance, and the process of falling down winds up taking several seconds? “Fred Claus” is the movie equivalent of that — 115 minutes of awkward flailing and struggling before it finally collapses, embarrassing everyone in the vicinity. Ho ho horrible.
D+ (1 hr., 55 min.; )