Fred Claus is pure Vince Vaughn hijinksbut the PG, family-friendly mode may not be his most advantageous venue.
Playing second fiddle to a more famous sibling can be rough. Just ask Fred Claus (Vaughn), a regular guy who has had to grow up under the shadow of his little brother, Nicholas Claus (Paul Giamatti), aka Santa. That's a big shadow, to say the least, both figuratively and literally. As an adult, Fred has pretty much steered clear of his family, but when he finds himself in dire need of some fast cash, he calls his brother. Pleased as punch to hear from him, Nicholas nonetheless makes him a deal: If he comes up to the North Pole for a visit and to help out the few days before Christmas, then Fred can have the money. Fred reluctantly agrees and soon he's being whisked off in Santa's sleigh by head elf Willie (John Michael Higgins). But once Fred gets to the North Pole, nothing seems to go right and soon he is the cause of much chaos--which, unbeknownst to Fred, causes Nicholas even more stress since his North Pole operation is one step away from being shut down by a cold-hearted efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey). Can Fred quit being bitter in time to save his brother's livelihood? Of course he can.
Hmmm, Vince Vaughn minus the R-rated Wedding Crashers/Old School irreverence? It's a stretch. Seeing the comic actor playing it PG is a little weird, but you might enjoy how Vaughn infuses his unique energy into Fred Claus. From getting all the elves to boogie down in Santa's workshop, to going on one rant after another (on his brother: "He's a clown, a megalomaniac, a fame junkie!"), to pilfering money on the street and then being chased by Salvation Army Santas, it's all good. Giamatti, too, seems a little out of his comfort zone, as the saintly St. Nick. The actor, who usually plays such endearing sad sacks, has already played against type to great effect this year as the maniacal bad guy in Shoot 'Em Up, but he isn't nearly as successful in doing the flipside of that in Fred Claus. And what the hell is Kevin Spacey doing in this? As the villain of the film, he fills the shoes nicely, but he is almost too good at it (natch) for such a feel-good family film. Even Higgins--a character actor who is usually so hilarious in films such as The Break Up and all of Christopher Guest's movieshas to shed the cheekiness and sugar himself up for Fred Claus. There's also Rachel Weisz as Fred's beleaguered girlfriend (you heard right) and Kathy Bates as the Claus boys' mother, who always sees Fred as inferior to her other son, to fill out a cast of big names doing family fare.
Director David Dobkin is a Vince Vaughn favorite, having directed him in Wedding Crashers and Clay Pigeons, but like his muse, Dobkin seems a little out of place guiding this material. Granted, Dobkin creates a pretty magical North Pole, complete with an entire city of little dwellings, a Frosty Tavern and a huge, domed Santa's Workshop. The montage of Fred delivering presents on Christmas Evefalling down chimneys, stuffing cookies in his face, zooming around in the sleighis also well done. But overall, Fred Claus is a Vaughn vehicleeven as sugary sweet and family-friendly as it is--and all Dobkin really does is turn the camera on and let the man do his stuff. Dan Fogelman's script is also so very bland, full of any number of holes, and only picks up once Vaughn starts to improvise. Bottom line: If you're looking to take the kids to a sweet Christmas movie and are a Vince Vaughn fan, then Fred Claus is for you.
Hollywood.com rated this film 2 1/2 stars.