Tim Allen must have been sick or bored or tanning in Ibiza earlier this year, because we’ve got no Santa Clause 4 to look forward to this holiday season. (If “look forward to” is the correct phrase.) Instead, Vince Vaughn has stepped into the gap to deliver this season’s traditional tinsel-filled, live-action family comedy. So if you’re the kind of parent who loads the family into the minivan and trucks them off to the mall theater every Thanksgiving to watch the likes of Jingle All the Way, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Christmas With the Cranks, Surviving Christmas and Deck the Halls, then start herding them up now, because here comes another thoughtless stocking stuffer.
Over the years, Vaughn has parlayed his personality as the outgoing-loudmouth-as-sidekick (Swingers) into the overbearing-jerk-as-leading-man (The Breakup). Here, he is conscripted by Wedding Crashers director David Dobkin to do just that as the titular Fred Claus, the naughty, overshadowed older brother of Santa Claus (played by Paul Giamatti). It’s one of those marginally clever Hollywood ideas that gets sold by pitch alone. Desperate to earn their ridiculously large advance check, the scriptwriters have tried to cram enough frantic action into this thing to justify its 114-minute length. Unfortunately, the film never grows beyond its one-smirk premise.
Kicked out of his apartment by his meter maid girlfriend (the criminally misused Rachel Weisz) and desperate for bail money (don’t ask), Fred ends up phoning his estranged little bro Santa. Against the protestations of Mrs. Claus (the stupidly miscast Miranda Richardson--what do these producers have against attractive British actresses?), Santa sends some cash to Fred. He adds a condition, however. Fred must come to the North Pole and work off the debt.
Hijinks ensue, of course, with Fred throwing Santa’s workshop into a typical PG frenzy. The elves, for example, like Christmas carols, but Fred teaches them to shake their stuff to an Elvis tune. Just imagine. Elves dancing. To Elvis. Ho, ho, that’s funny stuff! All the screenwriters need to do now is throw in a crisis in the form of an evil “efficiency expert” (Kevin Spacey) who’s been sent to evaluate Santa’s production and pink slip the jolly old elf if anything goes awry this holiday season. ... Wait, who the hell does Santa work for and why do they want him fired? Sorry, the film doesn’t bother explaining details like that. It needs the convenience of a villain, and Spacey is it.
Fred Claus does boast one clever moment of self-reference, a sequence in which Fred joins a group therapy session and encounters a number of rather amusing celebrity sibling cameos. The rest, however, is lazily cribbed from a long string of holiday movies and TV specials (Mrs. Claus hectors Santa about his weight, one of the elves is black and funky, Santa gets sick and can’t fly the sleigh on Christmas Eve.) Vaughn can still riff with the best of them; but confined to a PG rating, his ad-libs seem painfully truncated. As a result, the majority of jokes here are all of the slapstick variety, desperately punched up with lots of “Boi-oi-oing!” sound effects stolen straight out of “The Flintstones.”
The plot is rounded out with gobs of totally random magical rules, lazily used to shove the story forward. Early on, a narrator informs us that whenever someone becomes a saint, they, their entire family and their spouses become “frozen in time”--which explains why I ran into Saint Quentin, the patron saint of locksmiths, and his wife just last week at the Frontier. Later on, we’re told that any old elf can fly Santa’s sleigh, but only “a Claus” can fly it on Christmas Eve. Oh, who ever will save Christmas this year?
Watching Santa Claus scream at and get into physical altercations with his dysfunctional family is about as much fun as it sounds. If only Fred Claus could generate some sense of wonderment or magic; but it doesn’t. It feels flat, manufactured and mostly recycled from start to finish--like somebody just rewrapped The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause and regifted it. Gee, thanks, Hollywood. I don’t know what to say. You shouldn’t have.