It’s a mess. It is. It never quite gels as fantasy, can never quite figure out what kind of magical world it wants to exist in. And it suffers from some — just a few — of the usual idiocies the movies implausibly dubbed “family friendly” are afflicted with these days: kicks to the crotch, both literally and metaphoric, for instance.
But it’s got… something, this Fred Claus, this silly flick that’s just a little bit profound in its goofiness, this wonderland of schtick that touches on the dark flipside of all the ho-ho-ho and enforced jolliment of the Holiday Season(TM). It’s got Vince Vaughn, for one, whose rapid-fire snark is the bitter, welcome antidote to sugarplums and candy canes, which is already feeling oppressive now that the cardboard reindeer and the tree trimmings are showing up in ye olde shopping malls in August. His Fred can’t escape the in-your-face-ness of the Most Wonderful Time of the Year(TM), the sidewalk Santas with their charity begging and the dumb pop carols on the radio and the tinsel! the tinsel! everywhere… and he can’t stand it. He’s Santa’s brother, see, and even adorably pudgy youngsters generous and kind to the point of saintliness — as baby bro Nick was when he and Fred were kids — are annoying little so-and-so’s to older siblings. Especially when Mom keeps saying stuff like, “Why can’t you be more like your brother?”
What’s missing is the intense oppressiveness of immortality on Fred — the whole Claus clan shifted over to the eternal when Nick achieved his own, apparently, and surely Fred is at least hundreds and hundreds of years old — and there is a darkness that would be wild to explore, maybe in a hard-R-rated bit of psychological suspense aimed squarely at cynical adults. But this one’s for the kids, and we grownups will have to find the fun in it where we can. Like in Fred’s all-out brawl with an army of charity Santas that culminates in a toy store knockdown involving flung Frisbees and brandished baseball bats: here are goodies that should be under a decorated tree being put to murderous use. It’s funny and acid at the same time, and it’s only the beginning.
Fred’s a scammer, see, and he finds himself visiting his brother up North — waaay North — just before the Big Day because he wants to borrow some dough for his latest get-rich-quick scheme. (You’d think an immortal would have discovered the miracle of compounding interest, but Fred’s not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree.) Which is how he finds himself up to his eyeballs in the romantic problems of elves and the business problems of Nick: an “efficiency expert” from “The Board” is threatening to shut Santa down, outsource the whole shebang down to the South Pole. Fred will make things much, much worse before, of course, he makes them better.
It doesn’t work, storywise, not in the bigger picture: as a satire on corporate culture, Fred Claus is clumsy and awkward and lacks any conviction or coherence (just who’s on “The Board,” anyway?). But some of the little details are delightful and funky and surprising in the best way. Paul Giamatti’s (Shoot ’Em Up, Lady in the Water) Nick is one of the best movie Santas ever: he’s a real person, a real man, with heart and spirit and soul. The angst of Vaughn’s (Into the Wild, The Break-Up) Fred, who’s always just trying to get out from under his brother’s shadow, is palpable, genuine pain instead of mere gimmick. And Kevin Spacey (Superman Returns, Beyond the Sea) as the efficiency expert brings the funny-sinister… though there’s one scene toward the end in which one tiny gesture makes you rethink everything you thought you knew about him.
Okay, it all makes no sense. But still, it tickles me to know that there is at least one Rolling Stones song on the jukebox at Frosty’s Tavern at the North Pole.