The Claus That Won't Fly

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Vince Vaughn in Fred Claus

Like children waiting for Santa on Christmas Eve, moviegoers had hopes for this one. Vince Vaughn and David Dobkin, the star and director of Wedding Crashers, reunite for a holiday comedy scripted by Dan Fogelman (one of the screenwriters of the Pixar movie Cars). Supporting Vaughn as the black sheep of the Claus clan and Paul Giamatti as Santa, the picture's got three Academy Award winners: Kathy Bates as their mother, Rachel Weisz as Fred's ill-used girlfriend and Kevin Spacey as a corporate type threatening to close down Santa's workshop. Giamatti and Miranda Richardson, who plays his wife, have been Oscar-nominated. Even Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, who has a bit as the North Pole's DJ, is a Grammy-winner. From pedigree alone, the movie should have been good.

It isn't. The movie is less ho-ho-ho than uh-oh, or oh-no. Emitting a stale odor from the first reel, Fred never engaged the audience of kids and adults that I saw it with. There were neither big laughs nor the kind of warmth you can feel when moviegoers are connecting with the stuff on-screen. And if early indications hold, the opening weekend will be a box office disappointment.

Which would make Fred Claus the third comedy-star vehicle to tank this fall, after Ben Stiller's The Heartbreak Kid and Owen Wilson's The Darjeeling Limited. In this movie, the usual shaggy energy that makes Vaughn so appealing — he's a louche cannon — is hardly evident. The actor has to be surly, then sanctified, and neither plays to his strengths. Will Ferrell could play it cute-innocent in Elf; here, Vaughn just looks snowed under.

But bad movies can be as instructive as good ones, as raise, even without meaning to, some intriguing issues. So let's look more closely at the corpse and do a quick crime scene investigation.

1. Lower the Movie into This Plot.

It's a few days before Christmas, and Fred, having exiled himself from the North Pole, is now in Chicago working as a repo man, a sort of sub-prime-rate enforcer. He enrages the people whose holiday he's ruining and exasperates his meter-maid inamorata with big ideas never fulfilled, dinner dates blown off. Plying a Salvation Army scam, Fred lands in jail and is forced to call his brother Nick, a.k.a. Santa, to go his bail. That brings him to the North Pole, the prodigal son carrying a grudge as big as Santa's sack of gifts.

Any child could predict what happens: Fred will learn the spirit of Christmas from his bro, and he'll use his street smarts to help Santa survive in the modern age. And if I were to tell you that, before going to the North Pole, Fred befriends a young black kid from an orphanage... But no, it's all too painfully predictable. Halfway through the movie, I gave up hoping it would display a modicum of logic, a sentence of sense, a subordinate clause of sanity. Besides, as Chico Marx so acutely observed, "There ain't so sanity clause."

The villain of the piece is Spacey, as a Scrooge type, sent from McKinsey-like headquarters, whose job is to impose stricter rules on all benefactors of children. (The Tooth Fairy has been told she can put money under kids' pillow only after the first tooth.) Conversion is the fate of every marplot in a movie like this. So Spacey, who played Lex Luthor in last year's Superman Returns, gets a Superman cape for Christmas. In-jokes and cross-marketing (the same company, Warner Bros., released both Fred Claus and Superman Returns) are about as sophisticated as this movie gets.

2. Sibling Ribaldry

Young Fred had been his parents' joy until little Nick came along. They immediately found constant fault with Fred, even as they cheered everything the baby did: giving away his presents to needier kids, jumping down a chimney, chopping down a fir tree that his big brother happened to be perched in. Momma Claus (Kathy Bates) is the same kind of ego-destroyer as Steve Carell's mother is in Dan in Real Life. Her ragging on Fred, while Nick becomes a hero to children every December, leads Fred to spectacular resentment.  In a scene that's way too "ouch" for a PG comedy, grown-up Nick says, "You hate me," and grown-up Fred replies, "I don't hate you, Nick. I just wish you were never born." Later, Nick sends Fred a note: "I'm sorry I cut down your tree." Can this conflict get any more forthrightly phallic?

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