1 1/2 out of 4 stars
One has to pity aspiring screenwriters and producers charged with coming up with new concepts for Christmas movies.
The task becomes greater if Santa Claus, the most seen character in the history of movies, is included. If for no other reason (and there really is no other reason), you have to give "Fred Claus" points for originality.
As the narrator points out at the beginning, this isn't a movie about Santa, aka Nick Claus (Paul Giamatti), it's about his older brother Fred (Vince Vaughn). Fred grew up in the shadow of perfect child Nick and quickly began to resent him. As an adult, the resentment only grew stronger and Fred, now making his living as a shady repo-man, would be happy if he never saw Nick or his parents again.
After getting pinched by the cops, Fred has no other choice but to call on Nick to bail him out. Nick agrees, on the condition Fred come to the North Pole to help with the toy-making chores and visit the folks. Kicking and screaming the entire time, the surly Fred arrives and quickly turns the place upside down.
With "Fred Claus," David Dobkin (the guy who directed Vaughn in "Wedding Crashers") and writers Dan Fogelman and Jessie Nelson are stuck in a cinematic nether region. It's a little too bawdy (and overlong) to qualify as ideal family fare (think "Elf" or "The Santa Clause" franchise) and not raunchy enough (think "Bad Santa") to appeal to adults. The storytelling compromises made to please both camps results in a movie that ... well, you know what happens when you try to please everyone.
If you've seen the 30-second trailer, you've already been privy to ALL of the humor contained in the film. For a movie with such a novel concept, promising nonstop, unbridled hilarity, it is remarkably stiff and serious. Fred is a typical Vaughn character. A smart-aleck with a slight mean streak and oodles of bad-boy charm, he's fun to watch until he starts growing a heart. Giving it the old college try throughout, Giamatti plays yet another frustrated sad sack. This schtick worked great in "Sideways" and "American Splendor," but it's starting to get stale.
Offering support are no less than three Oscar winners who all must have really needed a quick, fat paycheck. Kathy Bates plays the boys' control-freak mom and Rachel Weisz is underused as Fred's put-upon girlfriend. Kevin Spacey is effective as a pencil-pushing accountant, but is essentially playing the same character he did in "Glengarry Glen Ross."
Parents should be prepared for the tykes to start growing restless after about an hour, and then completely inconsolable at the 90-minute mark. Instead of gaining momentum when it should, the movie peters out for a huge stretch and then overcompensates with a frantic and dizzying finale.
The sole bright spot at the end is that the story is wrapped up without the hint of a sequel. Keep your fingers crossed. (Warner Bros.)
SideBar: Rating Scale
**** - Drop everything you're doing and see it now!
*** - Put it on your to-do list
** - Wait for the video
* - Not worth sitting through