The burden of having a famous sibling seems fraught with comedic possibilities, but whatever potential existed has been squandered and then some in “Fred Claus,” dumping coal into everyone’s holiday stocking. Although promoted as a comedy, this reunion of “Wedding Crashers” star Vince Vaughn and director David Dobkin alternates between unpleasantness and Hallmark-sweet sappiness, with the only clever (if predictable) sequence occurring well into the second hour. Disney enjoyed considerable success with “The Santa Clause” years ago, but solid early returns within that niche should evaporate once word of mouth earmarks this Warner Bros. release for the “naughty” bin.
The shortcomings are nearly as bountiful as a child’s Christmas wish list, but the movie’s central problem begins with Vaughn’s casting in the title role and the seeming inability to shackle his rapid-fire delivery and angry persona so that it adheres in even the smallest way to the fuzzy material.
Introduced via a prologue fraught with lapses in logic that, in a better movie, would have been easier to ignore, young Fred is the older brother of saintly Nicholas (Paul Giamatti), who grows up to become Santa Claus. (Something about the family never aging awkwardly explains the contemporary setting.)
Today, Fred is a fast-talking big-city repo man willing to fake being a charity to generate cash for a business venture, in part because he so desperately resents Nicholas and his parents for doting on their younger son. Yet when Fred gets into trouble and can’t reach his girlfriend (Rachel Weisz), he calls Nicholas, who insists that his brother come to the North Pole to work for him and earn his loan.
Ferried up by a chipper elf named Willie (John Michael Higgins), Fred immediately begins creating headaches for Santa, who is under additional pressure this holiday season. “The board” has sent an efficiency expert — played with ill-concealed malice by Kevin Spacey — to evaluate his operation.
What ensues, then, is an inordinate amount of shrillness and bickering (there’s even a family intervention) before the seemingly inevitable moment when Fred must discover the true meaning of — Christmas? Family? It’s not quite clear — and proceeds to help save the holiday for children the world over.
Although unintentionally so, not since “Bad Santa” has jolly old St. Nick been so abused. If “Fred Claus” was designed to soften Vaughn’s image for a family audience, he clearly didn’t get the memo, and an assortment of talented actors (among them Giamatti, Weisz, Spacey and Miranda Richardson as Mrs. Claus) look out of place and unhappy pretty much throughout.
Nor does it help that the movie is technically shoddy, with Santa’s village resembling something one might encounter at the local mall. Even more conspicuously phony is a technique called “digital head replacement” employed to superimpose the faces of Higgins and rapper Chris “Ludacris” Bridges onto elf-sized bodies — a considerable waste of blue-screen time, given the results. Apparently, no one bothered to check out “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy for more elegant man-to-Hobbit conversion tips.
For studios, feel-good holiday movies should represent the ultimate commercial no-brainer, but “Fred Claus” follows in the feel-bad footsteps of “Deck the Halls” — movies so tone-deaf and disagreeable as to have completely worn out their welcome by the time that gush of last-act warmth arrives.
In that respect, Hollywood might be making an inadvertent contribution to family values, what with the rather cynical image of movies as a means to escape family interaction around the holidays. Given options such as this, suddenly sitting around staring at each other doesn’t sound quite so bad.