On the face of it, Fred Claus, doesn’t have much going for it. It is, after all, a Christmas movie. It’s a genre that immediately and unhappily evokes the kind of dreary, formulaic tripe that the studios peddle out every year around the same time – working under the assumption that there’s always a commercial potential in Christmas. So those of us fortunate to work at cinemas are annually treated, on this, the most profitable of all religious holidays, to the most mediocre blueprint of family-friendly fare; you suspect Hollywood is almost boasting its depressing levels of unoriginality.
Typically these films are so rigidly paint-by-numbers that a computer could write the script. Include any or all of the following: snow, presents, Santa, elves, the North Pole, sleighbells, a plethora of grimly familiar Christmas songs dominating the soundtrack, and the concluding moral lesson, inevitably being the ‘true meaning of Christmas’.
I realise I am slowly risking free membership in the Scrooge club, so let me assure you that I do not hate Christmas, and indeed, I didn’t hate Fred Claus, not even slightly. And I say this having watched the film include, unashamedly, all of the cliches listed above. Fred Claus is by no means a classic of the genre, a genre that was never any good anyway, but it kept me entertained, and I laughed several times; and this is mostly thanks to Vince Vaughn.
Vaughn is an unlikely presence in a film like this, not least because the last film he made with director David Dobkin was the distinctly non-family friendly Wedding Crashers. But he is brilliant as the eponymous Fred, in role probably carved out especially for him. Fred is the black sheep of the Claus family, compared to his more famous brother Nick (or Santa as he is famously known, played by the always great Paul Giamatti). The premise goes that Fred grew to resent his kind-hearted and generous brother, and grew up to become an amoral repo man, who lies to his girlfriend and steals from charity.
It’s a nice enough idea, but Vaughn’s personal brand of fast-talkin’, wise-crackin’ humour broadens its appeal. He makes for an endearing and agreeable anti-hero, although much of witticisms might be better suited to a more mature audience. Fred Claus exists in an odd vacuum between sweet, cliched family film and knowing, referencing adult comedy. Where films such as Pixars are able to reconcile these two extremes, Fred appears to be caught in between.
There are some truly funny moments. An early scene, which gives Vaughn free rein to give a long rambling monlogue to a little girl on why it’s better for everyone that he reposesses her plasma TV screen, had me in stitches. And a terrific scene towards the end has Fred going to ‘Siblings Anonymous’, where he meets other men with more famous brothers. The real-life siblings of Bill Clinton, Sylvester Stallone and Alec Baldwin make brilliant cameos.
But both scenes fell on deaf ears of the young audience I watched it with. Conversely, the kids at my cinema seemed to enjoy the more obvious jokes – Fred dancing with the elves to Elvis, or fighting with a midget version of Ludacris, for example. It’s fairly lame comedy, and some discerning youngsters might feel somewhat patronised.
Indeed, when Fred agrees to work for his brother at the North Pole to get a loan, we are treated to a depiction of Santa’s home almost as familiar as Santa himself. Everything: the midget actors playing Santa’s jolly elves, the fake snow, the reindeer, the factory-line workshop, reminds you only of the films constantly repeated on television every December. The Santa Clause, The Grinch, The Polar Express, etc, etc… For much of Fred Claus, you get a horrible feeling of done-before-ness, and sometimes done-better-ness.
The film’s concept isn’t terrible – at least it’s a vaguely new twist on a old tale – but director Dobkin clearly isn’t brave enough to take it too far outside of the paradigm. It’s carried along well with a surprisingly high-calibre cast that includes three Oscar winners in Kathy Bates, Rachel Weisz and Kevin Spacey (yes, Kevin Spacey!), and Vaughn is a likeable, watchable, convincing lead, who keeps the action light and entertaining. But ultimately, it does little to avoid invoking the ghost of Christmas movies past.
For context: at the time of writing this review, I was working in a cinema. I no longer work for the cinema.