It’s not as bad as I thought, is probably not the best way to recommend a movie, but I was genuinely surprised by Vince Vaughn and Fred Claus. Expecting a crude, Christmasy take on Old School or Wedding Crashers, I instead found myself enjoying a deceptively sweet story about brotherly love and the spirit of Christmas. The movie is cutting at times but never offensive or cynical. Even if it doesn’t always get its balance right, its warm and generous undercurrent comes through.
Vaughn turns out to be the real revelation. He maintains his trademark fast-talking, wisecracking persona, but as the estranged elder brother of Santa Claus, he also conveys sensitivity and hurt. Outshone by do-gooder Nick from a young age, Fred strikes out on his own, working as a repossessor in Chicago. When he finds himself in jail and in need of $50,000, Nick (Paul Giamatti) offers to lend the money, in exchange for Fred’s help at the North Pole. It’s Christmastime after all, but it’s also time for a surprise inspection by efficiency expert Clyde (Kevin Spacey). He thinks the elves cannot keep pace with the increasing number of toys being requested each year and threatens to shutter the whole operation and outsource to (gasp!) the South Pole.
This puts Nick and his wife (Miranda Richardson) on edge, and it doesn’t help when Fred disrupts the normal running of things with factory-wide dance parties and a disregard for proper paperwork. Their mother (Kathy Bates), with whom Fred has never been on good terms, blames her oldest son. There’s potential for a stronger family dynamic here. The Clauses have plenty of issues to work out, prompting Fred to attend a very funny Siblings Anonymous meeting. His broken relationship with his mother and a fraught one with his sister-in-law deserve more attention, especially with Bates and Richardson in those roles. Poor Trevor Peacock, who plays the father, doesn’t even get a speaking part.
Vaughn gets a strong foil in Giamatti, however. As a wronged brother with a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder, Fred sounds like the central figure of a cloying feel-good film. And while he does carry most of the weight, the two end up sharing the load like the good brothers they are. Nick is more than a fading mascot with back problems and a cookie habit; he must also sort out a small existential crisis when he realizes a flaw in his naughty or nice system.
Some of the film’s more touching moments come from outside the Claus family circle. Fred befriends the head elf Willie (a charming John Michael Higgins), who has his eyes an inexplicably human-sized elf (Elizabeth Banks). When Fred teaches his new friend to dance in order to win her over, you can’t help but to laugh and cheer and be a little heart-broken. It’s a similar feeling when Slam (Bobb’e J. Thompson), an orphaned kid from upstairs, sneaks into Fred’s apartment for some emotional guidance and security. For once, we have a Vince Vaughn character trying to act like a responsible adult. He does suffer some in the romance department, however, and his relationship with his meter maid girlfriend (Rachel Weisz) is an erratic plot point. But the movie puts enough love into the holiday itself to sustain this not-so-bad film.
Prod: Joel Silver, David Dobkin, Paul Hitchcock, Jessie Nelson
Dir: David Dobkin
Writer: David Fogelman, Jessie Nelson
Cast: Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti, Miranda Richardson, Kathy Bates, Rachel Weisz, John Michael Higgins, Kevin Spacey, Elizabeth Banks, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Ludacris
Time: 115 min
Country: United States