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.
By the way, did you know Santa is not in charge of the North Pole? Apparently there's a "board of directors" overseeing the operation, and "they" send a callous "efficiency expert" by the name of Clyde (Kevin Spacey) to get production back on track … or else they're "shutting Santa down." Apparently, there are other people who can fill the job? Oh yes, Clyde just happens to be making his rounds while Fred is messing everything up in Santa's workshop.
From there it's just one messy Christmas cliché after another. There's a little orphan friend back in Chicago who breaks bad due to Fred's negative influence—think there's a chance Fred might get a chance to set him straight? Fred befriends Willie (John Michael Higgins), a shy middle-aged elf who has a crush on Charlene (Elizabeth Banks), an inexplicably adult-sized blonde bombshell of an elf—think Fred might teach him something about romance and self-confidence? Think Fred experiences a change of heart regarding family and Christmas? Wanna guess whether or not Fred teaches Santa a lesson by movie's end too? Does he get to ride the sleigh and save Christmas? Do reindeer fly? Am I really giving anything away with all this?
Look, it's not to say Fred Claus doesn't have its charms. Vaughn's got some humorously cynical bits as with most of his movies, and Giamatti is delightfully inspired casting as the jolly guy in red. There are some truly funny scenes, some of them chuckle-inducing bits of dialogue, some of them uproariously clever (Siblings Anonymous … I'll say no more). And there are even a few touching moments: I love the idea of elves gathering at a magic view-screen to watch the fruits of their labor on the excited faces of children Christmas morning. The movie's generally got its heart in the right place, and there's very little objectionable content.
Yet I'm still troubled by some of the themes in this movie. When I say Wanda wants a commitment out of Fred, I mean to say she wants him to move in with him, not marry him. All well and good that Fred tries to loosen up everyone at the North Pole, but are we really rooting for this man-child's irresponsible behavior? And much as I appreciate the sentiment shown by Fred, his speech to Santa about how there are "no bad children" and that "every child deserves a gift at Christmas" is a bunch of baloney. What every child deserves is love, grace, and responsible discipline, not a toy.
Hence the "fair" 2-star rating. I know families who will enjoy Fred Claus in spite of its many flaws, and I have friends who will call it one of the year's worst in spite of its funny moments. If you're looking for a little Christmas movie diversion, this is a generally fun movie as long as your expectations are low enough. But considering the talent of the cast and filmmakers (Dan Fogelman wrote this screenplay after Cars), Fred Claus should be better (and funnier) than this. "Does Santa Claus have a family?" Yes, but when it's all said and done, are you happy to have met them?
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- Young Nicholas ends up alienating his brother in the process of showing love and kindness to others. In what ways are Christians the same in their zeal to show love to others? How could Nicholas have shown more consideration to Frederick? How can Christians be more mindful of others that they're inadvertently offending?
- Santa invites Fred to the North Pole for December in an effort to reconcile him with his family. What does Santa do right? Where does he fall short? What qualities are needed for us to reconcile with estranged family members and hurt relationships? Is it at all similar to the way Christians should reach out to non-believers?
- Fred tells Santa that there's no such thing as naughty children, just children who are hurt and confused. He also says every kid deserves a present at Christmas. Do you agree? In what ways is he right and wrong? Which "gifts" do children unconditionally deserve, and which should they earn?
- Whose fault is it that the North Pole is threatened with foreclosure? Is it Fred's irresponsible behavior? Or did Santa give too much responsibility to Fred? How might they have avoided the film's predicament?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Fred Claus is rated PG for mild language and some rude humor. At one point, Santa says his workshop is "going down the crapper"—that's about as bad as the language gets. The "rude humor" is probably a mild but completely unnecessary reference to sexual impotence during a family argument. There's also a subplot involving Fred and his girlfriend Wanda, who wants him to move in with her (as opposed to wanting to get married).
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