Even by the mediocre standards of most Christmas-themed Hollywood films, Fred Claus is a profoundly depressing experience. A scandalous waste of talent and resources, the film takes a premise full of potential and squanders it in the most cack-handed fashion imaginable, making ill use of a whole slew of reputable actors in the process. It has neither the heart of Elf nor the bite of Bad Santa – the two best Christmas comedies of the past few years – and yet it somehow conspires to run twenty minutes longer than the former and almost half an hour longer than the latter. Fred Claus is a garish, noisy and relentlessly unfunny disaster which is likely to make scrooges of us all.
The most frustrating thing about Fred Claus is the fact that there's a good idea buried in there somewhere. The film is a Christmas story which doesn't focus on the man in the red suit, but instead switches the spotlight to his older brother. Ever since they were kids, Fred Claus has always lived in the shadow of his brother Nicholas; an angelic child who gave his present to the poor, never misbehaved, and managed to outdo Fred at every turn. Naturally, Fred's frustration continues to grow inside him until he grows up and turns into Vince Vaughn, an embodiment of pure cynicism. He's a Chicago repo man – he takes while his brother gives – and with visions of his much-loved sibling assaulting him at every turn, this particular time of year is not a happy one for Fred. On the plus side, Fred is on the verge of sealing a potentially profitable business opportunity, but to do so he'll need $50,000 right away, and the only person he knows with that kind of money is living at the North Pole.
To get his hands on the money, Fred will have to pay the family a visit, and he's whisked off to the Pole where he comes face to face with Nicholas for the first time in many years. In an inspired piece of casting, Father Christmas is played by Paul Giamatti, whose sad-sack demeanour gives a different slant to the character normally portrayed as such a bundle of joy. It's a strangely soulful piece of acting, which stands out like a sore thumb amidst this film's coarseness, and a film in which this character was placed centre-stage might have been an interesting one, but Santa is sidelined here as director David Dobkin focuses on Vince Vaughn's none-too-hilarious antics. Far too much of Fred Claus consists of Vaughn fighting with elves, while another large chunk of it comprises of Vaughn dancing with elves. The star plays his usual motor-mouthed, wisecracking self here, just as he did so effectively for Dobkin in their previous collaboration The Wedding Crashers; but within the constraints of a kids' movie his acting is deprived of its edge, and without that edge Vince Vaughn looks helplessly lost.
Still, his frantic ad-libbing is much more fun than any attempt to follow the plot; a plot which manages to be both too simplistic and needlessly overcomplicated at the same time. Just as Fred turns up to cause chaos in the toy factory, an "efficiency expert", played by Kevin Spacey, arrives to investigate the way Santa runs the production line and threatening to put him out of business. Who is this man? What board does he represent? Since when has Santa (and the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, apparently) been run by a committee? We never find out. Meanwhile, Fred also has to help chief elf Willie (John Michael Higgins) in his bid to woo Santa's little helper Charlene (Elizabeth Banks), who is the only fully-sized human in residence aside from the Claus clan. Again we might be entitled to wonder where this girl has come from and what she's doing working at the North Pole, but the film has no answer.
You might have gathered by now that the script is a illogical mess, but the filmmakers have still managed to draw a remarkably talented ensemble to the project. Aside from the actors already mentioned, the film features Rachel Weisz as Fred's on-off girlfriend, Miranda Richardson as Mrs Claus, Kathy Bates as the boys' mother (and, oddly, Trevor Peacock as their father), and Ludacris as the North Pole's resident DJ. It's hard to fathom so many talented actors seeing something worthwhile in the pathetically thin roles afforded to them by this picture and, unsurprisingly, few of them give anything like decent performances.
Fred Claus does have one very funny scene, and it occurs far away from Santa's winter wonderland. The setting is a sibling support group for those who bear resentment against their more successful brothers, and it features a couple of unexpectedly fun cameos, but it feels out of place in this picture. Fred Claus doesn't know what it wants to be, a film about sibling rivalry, a satire on globalisation and downsizing, or an good old-fashioned Christmas movie. It ends up making a dismal, half-hearted grab in all directions and, when that doesn't pay off, it goes for the predictably schmaltzy finale. Fred's little orphan buddy gets a puppy, and everyone learns the true spirit of Christmas, even mean old Mr Spacey. Bah Humbug, I say; and while it may only be November, my reserves of seasonal good cheer are already running dangerously low after viewing this dispiriting Christmas turkey.