FRED CLAUS (dir. David Dobkin)
Christmas is a mess. It’s not sacrilegious to say it. Between the remaining religious significance, the retail desire to cram the celebration down our throats earlier and earlier, and the ‘ME! ME! ME!’ sense of materialization and entitlement, it’s hard to figure out a proper yuletide reaction. There is still a lot of inherent magic in the holiday, but there’s an ever increasing amount of grief, gratuity, and groveling too. Alt-rock darlings Low provide the perfect analogy to the season with their Gap Ad special—a cover version of the classic “Little Drummer Boy”. Applying a shoe-gazing slowness to the track, and amplifying the angst by using a single sample from Goblin’s soundtrack for the George Romero zombie stomp Dawn of the Dead, they captured the sullied season in a nutshell. Oddly enough, David Dobkin’s Fred Claus is a similarly styled mixed message. It takes the standard Noel and gives it a good old tweak in the tinsel.
Ever since he was a boy, Fred had to live in the sainted shadow of his practically perfect younger sibling Nicholas. As they aged, the constant doting of their mother and the growing gregarious nature of little “Santa” finally got to his big brother. Irritation turned to ire, and when a prized possession is suddenly destroyed, Fred decides he no longer needs the Claus clan. He winds up in the Windy City, playing repo man. While his woman Wanda puts up with his issues, it’s street kid Slam that really appreciates his cynical poses. After getting arrested in a charity scam, Fred looks for someone to bail him out. Sadly, only Santa is available. He agrees to help his distant relative on one condition—he must come to the North Pole and work in his little brother’s toy concern. Initially reluctant, Fred signs on, and it’s a good thing too, since evil Efficiency Expert Clyde Northcutt has just arrived—and he’s looking to put the jolly old elf out of business.
Fred Claus is the perfect post-millennial holiday film. It’s funny, smart, wicked, warm, and above all, completely clued-in to our growing crass commercialization of Christmas. It’s a movie steeped in mythos, overflowing with heart, and devilishly deceptive about its contrasting seasonal dichotomy. On the one hand, the narrative wants to champion a theme of “no bad children”, arguing that Santa’s outdated “naughty or nice” judgment misses the much bigger picture. Yet there’s an equally effective subtext which hints that such touchy feely pronouncements have ruined the real spirit of the holiday, a time when giving was based on your approach to life the other 364 days out of the year, not just your status as an annual gift machine. While it may not have been the intention of director David Dobkin, Fred Claus exposes the layers of fake sentiment that tends to destroy every celebration. Instead, he boils Christmas down to its iconic basics—snow, Santa, smiling faces—and then encloses it all in a veil of dysfunction which wants to mirror everyday existence.
Oddly enough, it’s not Vince Vaughn’s Fred who’s the main culprit. He’s supposed to corrupt our silent night. Capable of playing both way big and too small, he’s just right here—angry but approachable, selfish but not completely self-centered. And Kevin Spacey’s Nortcutt is not the killjoy either. Granted, he’s the stereotypical bureaucrat that manages to stamp out the joy of such a season (he could kill a kitten’s inherent cuteness), but he’s nothing but a bully, a plot point waiting for its comeuppance. Other potential suspects include Mrs. Claus (Miranda Richardson), the very definition of a silent shrew, and the perplexed parents (Kathy Bates and Brit Trevor Peacock) who dote on their gift giving offspring without once considering Fred’s feelings. So who’s the biggest baddy of them all in this film filled with potential problem makers? Why Santa of course.
Fred Claus’s single genius stroke is to make Paul Giamatti’s interpretation of the Christmas fixture a flailing, neurotic mess. Old St. Nick is a walking disaster, a stressed out soul who’s eating away his troubles. As a child, we see how, sometimes, Santa was misguided in his decisions. He believes he can gift issues away, and as he grows older, he keeps toys away from deserving kids because he won’t make quota if everyone gets a present. While it’s very sly and almost too subtle, Dobkin delivers a red suited symbol who’s at the end of his rope. He’s just a single bad business report from going postal—and Fred may be the fuel to start such a shooting spree. Of course, Fred Claus never careens that far over into bleak black comedy, but a great many of the gags here are definitely based in anger, desperation, and interpersonal shame.
Certainly this is not a perfect film. A tiny elf character named Willy, essayed by Christopher Guest regular John Michael Higgins, is about as convincing as the CGI used to render his miniature status. We know he lusts after the human sized Charlene, but his motives are really unclear. Similarly, there’s a lot of unexplored potential in the tiny DJ played by rapper Ludicris. The talented artist is more or less wasted in what amounts to an uncreative cameo. There are scenes that don’t really go anywhere (an intervention with Fred falls flat) and Oscar winning actress Rachel Weisz is a weird choice for a Chicago meter maid. Her relationship with Fred is fine, but her presence in the US is never explained. Some could argue that for a funny business fantasy that intends to do nothing more than make you laugh and enliven your spirit, Fred Claus need not be flawless. But when there’s so much good material surrounding them, the miscues are more than evident.
Still, it’s hard to hate a Christmas movie that allows Roger Clinton, Stephen Baldwin, and Frank Stallone to riff on and rip on their far more famous siblings, and there is a wonderful montage toward the end that effortlessly captures the reasons for the season. And thanks to the bifurcated back and forth, the constant countermanding of wholesomeness with hackwork, tradition with the tainted and the tasteless, we wind up with a reflection of post-millennial holiday cheer. Some will come in expecting Bad Santa meshed with Wedding Crashers, but Fred Claus is friendlier, more away in a manger manageable than such a hard R conceit would create. This is truly a family film, albeit it one that acknowledges that you too hate the annual ridiculousness of such forced reunions. If Xmas has become a royal pain in the credit, this highly enjoyable romp knows the reasons why. Somewhere along the line, we lost the true meaning of decking the halls. Fred Claus won’t help you rediscover the significance, but it will make forgetting a whole lot more understandable.