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‘Fred Claus’: like ‘The Santa Clause,’ only less clever 

Say what you will about its sequels (or its star, Tim Allen; be sure to grunt afterward), but The Santa Clause wasn’t half bad. I mean, St. Nick actually bites it within, like, the first 20 minutes of that movie, am I right? The mythology was precise; the sleigh a miracle of modern technology, and that head-elf guy is on Numb3rs now. Could it be the best family holiday movie in years? Surely not. The Christmas Movie is, in my mind, so one-up-able. This year’s Santa stand-in, Fred Claus, alas, doesn’t rise to the occasion.

Not that I had wholly deluded myself into believing that David Dobkin and Vince Vaughn, Wedding Crashers’ director and star, respectively, could really make it happen in the PG realm. But get a load of the cast: Paul Giamatti, Rachel Weisz, Kathy Bates, Kevin Spacey …

Nuh-uh. I’m watching Fred Claus wondering: You actually read this script before you accepted?

The deal is Nick Claus (Giamatti) gets canonized during his lifetime, and the secret perk of sainthood is — how dare you Catholics keep this from us — that neither you, nor your relatives, nor your spouse ever have to taste the bitterness of death. Woohoo, yeah? Some are bound to utilize this eternal life better than others, and Fred Claus, Nick’s older brother, decided to stick with the whole fast-talking, working-class, entrepreneurial, Vince Vaughn thing. It isn’t a very profitable way of life, and after failing his beautiful meter-maid girlfriend (Weisz) one time too many, Fred takes to stealing and ends up in the slammer. Only his little (why-can’t-you-be-more-like-your) brother, Father Christmas, can swing the cash for bail — and a little extra, for Fred’s business venture.

But Santa isn’t just giving away free money, thanks to his wife’s “tough love” policy, anyway. Fred must earn his bail in the North Pole, thus the film’s main conceit: Vince Vaughn is tall, elves are short. Ergo: Vaughn in an elf-sized bed (creepy), Vaughn teaching an elf to dance (creepier), Vaughn using a urinal next to an elf (creepiest). Pitifully, the elf in question is the wonderful actor John Michael Higgins, regular of Christopher Guest’s films and, unforgettably, Wayne Jarvis of Arrested Development. Thanks to unconvincing computer effects, at least he and Vaughn never look as though they’re actually inhabiting the same plane.

The filmmakers seem to have attempted to cover for the half-assed CGI with sound effects (of the “boing!” kind, not the sort you get an
Oscar nom for), and by speeding-up the action in certain sequences.

Kevin Spacey, between this and Superman Returns, has been watered-down in a bad way. His villain’s “the little tree that refuses to grow right” speech is hardly coherent enough to rouse Fred’s anger toward his sunlight-hogging, great oak of a bro-bro. (Plus, Fred was born first, so the guy had like, six years of photosynthesis to himself. Cry about it.)

The family-film thing is a tricky balance, and at least writer Dan Fogelman didn’t go the Shrek route. If you can bear it, Fred Claus is good, clean fun (with bad, bad logical problems, icky effects, and low-balling actors). Maybe try The Santa Clause. •

Fred Claus
Dir. David Dobkin; writ. Dan Fogelman; feat. Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti, Miranda Richardson, Kathy Bates, Rachel Weisz, John Michael Higgins, Elizabeth Banks (PG)

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