Making this failure all the more incredible is that Dobkin directed Wedding Crashers, one of the funniest films of the last 10 years. This film, in which Vaughn plays the neglected older brother of Santa Claus, is listless, negative, painfully humorless stuff that will not become a holiday staple à la Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. This will just serve as a reminder that, sometimes, Christmas can unfortunately suck ass.
When Nick "Santa" Claus is born into a fairy-tale house in the forest, his brother Fred promises to be the best big brother ever. Pretty much out of the gate, Nick is a do-gooder, overshadowing everything Fred does, and he's well on his way to sainthood. Fred resents being ignored by his mama (Kathy Bates) and grows to despise his bro. When Nick gets his sainthood, he becomes immortal, and so does his family, so Fred is destined to an eternity of playing second fiddle to Santa.
The film jumps to modern times, where Fred (Vaughn) works repossessing little girls' big-screen TVs rather than leaving gifts in stockings and under trees. Santa (Paul Giamatti) is up in the North Pole dealing with an efficiency expert (a boring Kevin Spacey) who is looking to give Santa his pink slip. When Fred gets into some trouble, Santa bails him out of jail under one condition: He must come to the North Pole and give his little brother a hand getting ready for the big day.
The premise is pretty funny, but, I assure you, the film is not. The movie strives to be cynical in the way that Bad Santa got laughs, but it isn't nearly daring or clever enough to pull it off. Instead, we get dopey scenes of Vaughn getting Santa's elves all revved up by playing Elvis in the workshop, and Vaughn stuffing cookies in his face when he's forced to do Santa's job on Christmas Eve. None of the comedy in this movie is inspired. It's as if Dobkin said, "I got Vince, so the movie is funny no matter what we do!" and then stranded Vaughn with no real script or purpose.
True, Vaughn is a master of improvisational humor, but his is usually a more vulgar brand, so he's more than lost in a family comedy. I spent most of the time watching Fred Claus feeling a little sorry for the guy, straining to do meaningful work with a script not good enough for Tony Danza.
Vaughn actually fares better than Giamatti, who is now responsible for one of the worst Santas ever put to screen. Santa is just a worrywart, cranky old man with digestive issues and a bad back. Seriously: The makers of A Year Without a Santa Claus might have a lawsuit on their hands. As for Spacey, he's a dreary bomb as Clyde the efficiency expert, who is also a younger brother with self-esteem issues.
There's a joyless subplot involving Fred's girlfriend, a Chicago meter maid from Great Britain (Rachel Weisz) who wants so desperately for Fred to take her to visit Paris. Correct me if I'm wrong, but England is pretty close to France, right? I could understand if her character wanted a nice Hawaii trip, but Paris is just a hop, skip and a jump from her homeland. A nice Australian jaunt, maybe? Tokyo?
OK, I'm off track, but Fred Claus is the kind of junk movie that has you thinking about nonsense like this while watching. It's actually a better exercise than enduring what's on screen. I have no doubt that Vaughn will make me laugh again, just not in a stupid Christmas movie. Oh, wait: His future plans include Four Christmases with Reese Witherspoon, supposedly due out next year.
Vaughn fans are, at least temporarily, screwed.