Director David Dobkin brings us Fred Claus, the story of Santa Claus’s older brother, Fred, a fast-talking repo man played by Vince Vaughn. It’s not so much that Fred Claus is a bad guy as much as he’s a good guy who’s lost his way somewhere between childhood in the North Pole and adulthood in current-day Chicago. As a child, Fred, an ordinary boy with an unusually kind heart, lives in the Saintly shadow of his not-so-little brother Nick, the fattest baby anyone has ever seen. Nick, played by Paul Giamatti, a Saint who Mother Theresa herself would have had a hard time one-upping, is the apple of his mother’s eye. Mama Claus (Kathy Bates) loves both of her sons though she can’t help but wish Fred could be more like his perfect little brother Nick. This eventually takes its toll on Fred, sending him loose into the world on a path to far less than basic mediocrity.
We skip to Fred Claus, grown up, working for the Repo-A-Go-Go Repo Company. He lives alone despite the fact that he has a girlfriend, Wanda (Rachel Weisz), whom he can’t quite commit to, although he appears to be crazy about her. On the subject of Christmas, Fred doles out advice to his neighbor along the lines of, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid kid. You’re better than that.” In other words, when it comes to Christmas and life in general, in Fred Claus’s case, it’s more like “Don’t drink the milk. It’s spoiled,” and has been for a very long time.
Santa “Nick” Claus (Paul Giamatti) is a “dangerously overweight” closet eater and a stressed-out CEO of sorts, who suffers from acid-reflux disease and sleep apnea, amongst other, more personal disorders. His wife, Annette Claus (Miranda Richardson) is concerned with Nick’s ever increasing list of ailments and his over-indulgence in the holiday gingerbread. On top of that, Nick’s entire operation is threatened if he is unable to meet the obligations of a holiday that has become more demanding with each passing year. And if it’s possible to make things worse, Santa and the North Pole operation are under the scrutiny of an efficiency expert by the name of Clyde Northcut (Kevin Spacey) who is hell-bent on proving Santa a failure, sending the elves back to “Elfistan” and outsourcing the work.
When Fred Claus lands in jail after a rumble with a group of angry sidewalk Santas, he has no choice but to enlist the aid of his kid brother, Nick. Nick agrees to post bail as long as Fred pays the debt by working at the North Pole as seasonal help. Nick promises the work will be simple – sprinkling the doodads on the cookies for example, or putting stars on things the elves can’t reach. Annette Claus finds this development worrisome and tries to persuade Nick to demonstrate tough love when it comes to Fred. But Nick finds tough love too difficult for a Saint. Plus, he really loves his big brother. Fred’s reluctant arrival at the North Pole creates upheaval and disorder including, for one thing, a brawl with DJ Donnie (Ludacris), an elf from the South Side of the North Pole, over their differing tastes in holiday music. But, there are moments of real tenderness and kindness as well. One night at Frosty’s Tavern, home of the 2-for-1 Eggnog Happy Hour, Fred Claus teaches elf Willie (John Michael Higgins) to dance so that he can win the affections of Charlene (Elizabeth Banks), the elf girl he loves. Sadly though, these moments are few and when Fred fails to perform as hoped, a family intervention sends him packing back to Chicago and SA (Siblings Anonymous) with the likes of Frank Stallone, Roger Clinton and Stephen Baldwin (each playing himself, respectively). Ultimately, even a 12-step program fails to help and Fred Claus soon finds himself back at the North Pole facing both his miserable past and his uncertain future. Amidst the North Pole’s crumbling corporate infrastructure, the tightening grip of the villainous Clyde and Nick’s numerous health concerns, it is Fred’s simple and singular belief that all children are inherently good and deserving that finally saves the day.
I’ll admit that I walked into Fred Claus expecting nothing more than a fluffy holiday cliché. What I discovered was a deeper, more complex film (and an uncredited cameo by the foxy Jeffrey Dean Morgan). On the surface, Fred Claus might seem like a continuous clash of opposites or the classic good versus evil dilemma. Not so. The writers, Dan Fogelman and Jesse Nelson, took on the challenge of creating something bigger than the basic cookie-cutter tale of sibling rivalry and succeeded in proving that these brothers, despite major external differences, are nearly identical at their core.
As much as I fought against the notion of Santa’s all-magical, all-mystical world being subjected to the tribulations of the average man – compulsive overeating, job stress, corporate outsourcing, family dysfunction – in the end, I let go and embraced it. But really, for argument’s sake, if Santa Claus is just a regular guy from a regular family, he wouldn’t be Santa Claus, would he? He might be Tony Soprano but he certainly wouldn’t be Santa. Also, I’d lose the Secret Service Ninja elves but that’s just me. I suspect many viewers will find these tiny ninjas charming.
Though initially, I might have been slightly uncomfortable with the debunking of Santa Claus, the truth is Fred Claus delivers way more than just another comedic Christmas tale. I appreciated how Fred Claus captured the essence of family and the joy of giving – the heart of Christmas – without the usual elements of greed and excess. That, combined with the stunning sets (I want to live in that town, by the way), the cinematography, the fast-paced action sequences, and a remarkable soundtrack, makes me inclined to see this movie a few more times before Christmas.