Film review by Gordon Justesen
Technical specs by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Vince Vaughn, Paul
Giamatti, Miranda Richardson, John Michael Higgins, Elizabeth Banks, Rachel
Weisz, Kathy Bates, Kevin Spacey
Director: David Dobkin
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 115 Minutes
Release Date: November 25, 2008
“All right, ladies and gentlemen. Step right up for everyone’s favorite charity, People Help the People!”
You can always count on a number of things at Christmas time; families, presents, a period of shopping that can turn any saint into a maddening spawn of Satan, a visit from Santa, and at least one holiday-themed movie destined to join the ranks of many yuletide classics. In the past several years, we’ve had more misses than hits in the sense that most of them tend to paint an all too ugly commercialized view of Christmas without focusing on the true meaning.
Surprisingly though, Fred Claus is better than what we’re used to getting as far as Christmas movies go. It thankfully doesn’t play into the superficial, borderline offensive qualities of such recent yuletide failures like Deck the Halls and Christmas with the Kranks. It’s a harmless, lighthearted holiday comedy that is perfect for the family.
However, being a huge fan of Vince Vaughn and expecting a razor-sharp comedy, since this reunites Vaughn with Wedding Crashers director David Dobkin, I was left wanting a bit more. The main flaw of the movie may very well be within the pitching idea. In the end, a comedy vehicle for Vaughn crossed with a family friendly Christmas movie may not have been the best idea, since that entails trying to please two different audiences.
That’s unfortunate because there happens to be half of a good movie here, thanks to a neat concept that paints jolly old St. Nick in an unusual light. The basic idea is that there exists a case of sibling rivalry between Santa (Paul Giamatti) and his older brother, Fred (Vaughn), both of whom are immortal. From the very moment he was born, Santa was the more appreciated child of the family, leaving Fred in a state of bitter jealously.
Because we all know what became of Santa, the story is all about Fred and what became of him once he ditched the North Pole for the Windy City. Now making a living as basically a conniving schemer, Fred one day hopes to open up his own casino via a get-rich-quick scenario. In short, it’s the type of character we all love to see Vince Vaughn play, and he delivers once again in the charm department.
When he finds himself in jail, resulting from the film’s most hilarious moment, Fred is left with no other option but to phone his saintly younger brother for both bail and the money he needs to open up the casino. Santa agrees to help out, but only on one condition. He requests that big brother Fred pay a long overdue visit to his snowy stomping grounds.
By this point, it’s all too easy to predict how the rest of the movie will play out. The sibling rivalry will surface once again, the Claus brothers will reconcile, and Fred will have his eyes opened up to what is most important in his life, resulting in a cathartic change. Oh, and at some point Fred will have to take part in the saving of Christmas.
That last plot detail ties directly into my main gripe about the movie, which is an unnecessary subplot involving corporate efficiency expert Clyde Northcut (Kevin Spacey), who has been sent by superiors (don’t ask) to the North Pole to inspect Santa’s progress and eventually enforce the official shutting down of Christmas, in addition to firing the Easter Bunny. I never thought I’d see the day when a movie’s setback involved the presence of such a great actor like Spacey, who does his usual best in spite of the notion that his villainous character is tacked on and underdeveloped. And the fact we are force-fed a Superman reference, just in case we forgot that Lex Luthor himself was in the movie, wreaks of desperation.
But the movie has more than several bright spots, and I even want to wholeheartedly recommend it based one two hysterical sequences. The first is an early scene where Fred, posing as a charity fundraiser, is chased by an army of Salvation Army Santas after stealing their action. The way Vaughn tries to talk his way out of trouble is hysterical.
And a later scene that has Fred attending a “Sibling’s Anonymous” meeting has to be seen to be believed. It’s a meeting place for the not-so-famous brothers of hugely famous celebrities. The group includes the likes of Frank Stallone, Stephen Baldwin and Roger Clinton.
Fans of Vince Vaughn and his unbeatable charisma will certainly get their money’s worth. Nobody plays a fast-talking schemer better than he does. In addition, he and Paul Giamatti, who makes quite a nifty Santa, have a believable chemistry as the fighting brothers.
Overall, I haven’t had a more mixed opinion towards a movie in quite some time. As a Christmas movie for the family, I’d say the movie is absolutely worth a viewing…especially if you need a break from repeated viewings of Christmas Vacation and The Polar Express (required viewing for the holidays!). It’s simply a bad case of unevenness that keeps Fred Claus from being a potentially better movie.
The spacing of a Blu-ray disc helps correct some of the graininess of the DVD release, and thankfully, no full frame presentation is squeezed on. This is a holiday visual delight, with the North Pole looking quite lovely and radiant, with some eye popping color and details. I love the look of snow in high def; maybe that's because I've lived in Florida forever. Still, top marks.
There is only the same Dolby Digital 5.1 track that's on the DVD release instead of a lossless one, but it's still good.. The movie is quite frequent with both lively music cues on the soundtrack and physical comedy sequences. There are also some big effects scenes late in the movie, most notably Fred’s sleigh ride across the globe, which play off extremely well. Dialogue delivery is top notch throughout the presentation.
Ho, ho, ho...plenty of extras for good little boys and girls on this Blu-ray release. You get a commentary from the director and over 25 minutes of deleted scenes. Vince Vaughn and Paul Giamatti interview each other in fireside chat format, a tell-all featurette from the elves (ouch), a look at the famed siblings of even more famous celebs as seen in the movie, a behind-the-scenes look, and a Blu-ray exclusive bonus disc: "Fred Claus: The Race to Save Christmas".
Fred Claus is definitely an upgrade from the more recent dreadful holiday comedy fare, and it will make a perfect movie to celebrate the season with. But with a more focused story and far less subplots, it would’ve been something even more special!