Review: Fred Claus

Isn't there a verse in Revelations that proclaims when Tim Allen makes a funnier Christmas movie than Vince Vaughn, end times are a-comin'?

Fred Claus (Vince Vaughn) is a fast-talking loser with big plans for a Chicago OTB site and little time for his girlfriend (Rachel Weisz). Desperate for a 50 grand loan, Fred turns to his estranged kid brother, Nicholas (Paul Giamatti), otherwise known as Santa Claus, for help. The condition of the loan is that Fred must come to the North Pole for a visit, leaving the elder Claus with little choice but to head up to the toy shop and face his family troubles. Once there, Nicholas puts him to work, while an efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey) sniffs around, looking to shut down the elves for good.

I can certainly understand why Vince Vaughn would want to tackle a holiday picture. First of all, they're potential cash cows, as seen recently in the "Santa Clause" movies and Will Ferrell's "Elf." Secondly, they allow normally forked-tongued comedians a chance to find a new appreciation with the kiddie crowds; however, taking those reasons into consideration still doesn't excuse anyone involved with this laugh-free, charmless production. How could anyone screw up a Christmas movie?

Perhaps the questioning should begin with screenwriters Jesse Nelson and Dan Fogelman, who work overtime complicating what should be an incredibly simple story. It begins with the very explanation of Fred and Nicholas, who aren't just siblings fighting for the Claus, but some form of "live forever" beings the opening narration tries fruitlessly to explain (think a yuletide "Highlander"). From that fragment of perplexity, the film is suddenly thrust into motor-mouth mode, with Vaughn tap dancing on the chilly streets of Chicago like a homicidal manic trying to get laughs. I've seen the actor at top volume before and enjoyed it, but his scrambled, frenzied "Claus" improvs are uncomfortable to watch, like a sloppy drunk uncle trying to crack the dinner table up at Thanksgiving.

Once the film shifts over to the North Pole, "Fred Claus" (IMDb listing) becomes a mix of uneven special effects (the heads of actors such as John Michael Higgins are grafted on to elf bodies… poorly) and a seriously loathsome exhibition of slapstick comedy. On top of which, director David Dobkin ("Wedding Crashers") uses flamboyant cartoon sound effects, as if this big screen feature was a throwaway "Scooby Doo" cartoon. The headache continues.

"Fred Claus" is a snow globe filled with bad ideas and whiffed morals, including my personal favorite, which has Fred maliciously stamping the files of naughty kids "nice" to sabotage his brother's big night. Nicholas freaks out, not because bad kids are going to miss their critical life lesson and lose an important chance to correct their errant ways, but instead he panics because there won't be enough toys made in time to pass around to these wrongfully identified demons. So kids, keep that in mind: even if you're naughty and are in dire need of some discipline, Santa doesn't care. Everyone gets a toy at Christmas!

That sound you hear is the collective horrified gasp of parents everywhere.

For two hours (yep, two hours) "Fred Claus" stumbles aimlessly around, hitting some unintentional laughs (Spacey's needless character has a Superman fixation) and piercing displays of actors who shouldn't go off the page for any reason whatsoever (Weisz, I'm looking your way). Because this is a holiday film, the melodrama is soon shoveled in; turning what was a painful comedy into an intolerable situation. The artificiality of the emotions displayed here is staggering. "Transformers" cut deeper.

I still hold faith in the might of Vince Vaughn's funny bone. He's an ace comic actor, and clearly his skills are meant for bluer material. Seeing someone so sharp and clever flop around for 120 minutes in a transparent effort to boost his box office cache is enough to make me swear off Christmas forever.

Filmfodder Grade: D