Ho, ho, ho-hum
OK, it’s official: Vince Vaughn needs to take a break from making movies. True, his rapid-fire, smartest-guy-in-the-room form of condescending humor once was funny, but now he only hits maybe 40 percent of the time. There’s nothing wrong with cooling off, going to Cabo and coming back two or three years later with an armload of new material and a brand-new shtick. Vaughn seriously wears out his welcome in “Fred Claus,” which can’t decide whether it wants to be an edgy take on the Christmas movie or a true holiday family film. In the end, it ends up squandering most of the chances it has at being funny by not going far enough into either genre. The movie does have a clever premise, though. Fred Claus (Vaughn) is Santa Claus’s older brother, and he has the requisite chip on his shoulder one might expect from having to grow up next to one of the most beloved people on the planet. St. Nick (Paul Giamatti) tries to reach out to Fred, but all his efforts only seem to underscore Fred’s inferiority. It doesn’t help that their mom (Kathy Bates) practically smothers Fred with scorn. The film starts in what looks like some goofy form of the Middle Ages, but soon we’re whisked to present-day Chicago, where Fred works as a repo man (get it?) and fumbles his way through dating meter maid Wanda (Rachel Weisz). When Fred lands himself in jail after posing as a streetside Salvation Army worker to earn money for his future off-track betting site, he calls on his brother to both bail him out and pay for his business venture. Santa isn’t very good at tough love, of course, so he consents under one condition: Fred must come to the North Pole and work for his money. But things are not right up north: A mysterious, black-clad efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey) has been sent to evaluate the North Pole, and Santa’s numbers are down. Three more strikes, and Santa’s workshop gets shut down in favor of a more streamlined operation in the South Pole. Uh-oh. It’s not hard to guess where things go from here: Elven hilarity ensues, and Fred causes a lot of trouble, some of it his fault and some of it not. The comedic approach is broad, from kid-oriented slapstick to Vaughn sarcastically berating his brother’s marital troubles because of his weight. It feels uneven, and it might’ve been better if director David Dobkin had gone full-on naughty or nice. Since he couldn’t decide, he fails to turn up the heat on either front. One scene, where Fred goes to a support group for siblings of beloved people, actually clicks and has some real meat and comedic bite. But I can’t spoil the surprise to let you know which brothers are at the support group. Giamatti is good as Santa Claus, and I liked his naturalistic approach to the role; it brings humanity to a man who literally has the weight of the world on his shoulders and still has to be jolly all the time. Spacey is also great as a sniveling number cruncher who’s practically giggling at the thought of closing down Christmas. Many of the elves are little people, but Willie the lead elf (John Michael Higgins) and a few others (including Ludacris) are full-size actors shrunken down to elfin proportions with special effects. The results are kind of creepy and disconcerting, but it of course makes for tons of “hilarious” awkward elf dancing. Vaughn took a startlingly effective turn toward real acting in “Into the Wild,” but here he turns his back on that and falls back on the familiar shtick. There are a few moments when he lets us in on the fun, but mostly it’s same old Vaughn, a little grumpier and stuck in an elf bed too short for him. Ha, ha. In the end, “Fred Claus” does its fair share of tugging on the Christmas heartstrings as Fred finally attempts to rise to the challenge. It has a few heartwarming moments and a few laughs, but ultimately it doesn’t really either live up to the conventions of the Christmas movie or break the boundaries around it to make something new.
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