Those with an aversion to schmaltz should steer well clear of Fred Claus, a 2007 Christmas movie so loaded with unstable sweetness it’s nearly unbearable. On the other hand, there’s somewhat of a remarkable quality to the David Dobkin comedy that suggests magic in the David Fogelman and Jessie Nelson screenplay and several surprises from the astonishing cast.
And what a cast. Fred Claus features the services of Paul Giamatti, Kathy Bates, Miranda Richardson, Elizabeth Banks, Kevin Spacey, Rachel Weisz, John Michael Higgins, and Ludacris. Oh, and Vince Vaughn. Remi Adefarasin is the cinematographer and he captures the iridescent delights of the expansive set with cheer.
The movie begins with a fable with the birth of Nicholas Claus to his mother (Bates). The infant meets his brother Frederick and grows up to become a saint. Thanks to a nice wrinkle, saints and their families get to live forever. Don’t ask. In modern times, Fred (Vaughn) wants to open a gambling den but he’s short on cash. He gets arrested after a pile of Santas chase him down the street. Don’t ask.
Fred calls his estranged brother Santa Claus (Giamatti) for help. Santa can’t say no, but he does convince Fred to come see him in the North Pole and puts him to work. This leads to many misadventures, highlighted by the arrival of an efficiency expert (Spacey) who threatens the whole operation.
Fred Claus is stuffed to the brim with opportunistic drivel, with all sorts of problems for Fred to fix. He has a girlfriend (Weisz) but he’s a bad boyfriend and makes promises he can’t keep. He also hangs out with an orphan (Bobb’e J. Thompson) because the indebted protagonist can’t be all bad.
Fred has had a troubled with relationship with Santa and indeed the whole Claus clan, so he’s avoided the issue until financial problems push him all the way North. Santa has always been the magnanimous sort and his wife (Richardson) has been trying to help him become more assertive, but Jolly Old Saint Nick insists he’s a saint for a reason.
Giamatti makes for an interesting Santa Claus because he’s unafraid of personal flaws. He takes Santa’s renowned strengths and examines how there could be weakness in the compassion, but he also reveals that there is great power in the business of donning the red suit.
Vaughn is naturally the everyman and there’s little to his character that hasn’t been seen before. He even comes up with a philosophy that causes Santa to have a revelation, even if the proposal pertaining to “naughtiness” is all naïve nonsense. Vaughn also dances a few times, which isn’t good.
Alas, there is some good stuff in this movie. A funny scene involves a 12-step program for siblings that features some interesting cameos. And a late scene concerning Spacey and Giamatti working over the importance of a Superman cape is somehow both really poignant and really corny. Christmas movies are funny that way.
Fred Claus is nowhere near a classic, but it’s also nowhere near the Yuletide debacle of a Christmas with the Kranks or Four Christmases. It’s charitable and cheesy and there are too many solutions to too many problems. There are many wrinkles, like with the immortality ploy, and there are problems in the romantic department. But, by golly, Kevin Spacey dons a Superman cape and that’s a gift all its own.