Remember how unfunny and derivative the original trailer for Elf was? Yet Will Ferrell's comedic charisma and the charming family-friendly story helped make it a successful Christmas flick.
Four years later, and there's a sense of déjà vu watching the trailer for Fred Claus, which clearly wants to cash in on the same audience that made Elf a blockbuster. With director David Dobkin re-teaming with Vince Vaughn for the first time since Wedding Crashers, some might have assumed a lewder and cruder film. I suppose we can be thankful that this movie is closer in spirit to Elf than to Bad Santa; it's family friendly and mostly harmless. Unfortunately, the only other thing going for it is it's not as bad as the trailer makes out … emphasis on the word "as."
"Does Santa Claus have a family?" That's the question that inspired the story, which begins like a Grimm fairy tale, recounting the early childhood of Nicholas Claus through the eyes of his older sibling Frederick, who initially shows love and kindness to his baby brother. But Nicholas soon develops into an overly sweet-intentioned cherub who shows nothing but love and kindness to people. Unfortunately, Frederick's feelings and actions become neglected amidst all that love and kindness. When his parents begin to play favorites ("Why can't you be more like your brother?"), Fred starts to harbor resentment for little Nick, and for the spirit of Christmas in general.
Flash forward many years later to the present day. The movie tells us that when someone becomes a saint, the gift of immortality extends to the immediate family. News to me, though it still doesn't really explain why Santa Claus (Paul Giamatti) suddenly looks 20 years older than his older brother Fred (Vaughn)—or the same age as his parents (Kathy Bates and Trevor Peacock).
We all know what's become of Nick. Fred meanwhile has become a modern day Grinch, i.e., a Chicago area repo man who gleefully collects from overextended consumers, keeping most of their luxuries in his one-bedroom apartment. Despite his grouchy demeanor, he's not completely isolated and alone. His girlfriend Wanda (Rachel Weisz) is a meter maid from London who's inexplicably drawn to the shlub; he's selfish, keeps forgetting important dates like her birthday, and refuses to commit to a long-term relationship.
Unfortunately, Fred has a cash flow problem; he's looking for fifty grand to start a downtown casino. So he tries to swindle shoppers with a fake Salvation Army scam, but ultimately lands himself in jail. Unable to reach Wanda to bail him out, Fred turns to his family for help by making a phone call to the North Pole. Santa Claus is elated to hear from his estranged brother, but only agrees to loan money to in exchange for work during the busy preparations of December. Naturally, Fred agrees, though with great reluctance.
Now maybe it's just me, but knowing Fred's reputation, I would assign him work that's relatively simple and harmless with some level of accountability like gift-wrapping, quality control, or janitorial duty. But then Santa's got hundreds of elves for that, right? Instead, Santa Claus in his infinite wisdom puts Fred in charge of the case files, deciding whether children should be stamped "naughty" or "nice." I submit there's no more important job in Santa Claus lore.