Sorry, Virginia, There is a 'Fred Claus'

Fred Claus unsettled me before I saw it. Its TV commercials and movie posters seemed like glimpses into a sad and ugly world. When I finally watched the movie itself, it was everything I’d expected: a screaming wad of misanthropy grotesquely masquerading as feel-good holiday entertainment.

For the uninitiated: Fred Claus is a 2007 Christmas comedy starring Vince Vaughn as Santa Claus’ ne’er do well brother, Fred Claus. Embittered by his brother’s success and stung by childhood trauma, Fred is estranged from his family but agrees to work with his brother when he needs money. Fred’s trip to the North Pole coincides with a visit from a villainous efficiency expert threatening to shut down Santa’s holiday empire. At first, Fred causes havoc in Santa’s workshop, which the efficiency expert uses to shut down Santa. Then, Fred has a change of heart and helps save the imperiled Christmas and teaches Santa about judging people.

Aside from the unpleasant business about the efficiency expert, the movie could have been generated by an algorithm programmed with plot points from Rankin/Bass Christmas specials. From title through concept and cast, the whole endeavor dripped with cynicism and contempt for humanity.

My guess is a studio executive saw Elf’s profits and commissioned a Christmas movie with another guy from Old School, but never got around to actually watching Elf. In Elf, Will Ferrell’s manic derangement is like misdirection in a card trick: it fools cynical modern audiences into accepting a sweet and gentle story.

It’s a trick Vince Vaughn is incapable of pulling off. Vaughn has a unique, lived-in charisma that mixes well with some an absurd scenarios where he’s the anchor into reality, like Dodgeball. But even though he’s done two Christmas movies (Four Christmases, a legit good movie, is the other), his energy clashes with Christmas.

Christmas movies are about overcoming despair and cynicism. Despair and cynicism are at the core of Vaughn’s persona. Even with Vaughn’s most lighthearted comedic roles, his eyes carry a glimmer of deep sadness. His trademark manic speechifying is usually an obvious ruse. The audience knows he doesn’t mean what he’s saying—he’s really just keeping himself distanced from the situation at hand.

Fred Claus opens in the distant past, when Santa and Fred Claus were children and tries to show how Fred came to resent his younger brother. While Santa is kind and compassionate, he’s accidentally cruel to Fred. Then, the movie casually drops the idea that Santa’s immediate family becomes immortal when he becomes a saint. As a critic, the lazy hand-waving over a central plot point annoyed me. As a Catholic, I was appalled with its portrayal of canonization.

Once the movie jumps to modern day Chicago, the childhood flashback becomes puzzling. Vaughn plays Fred Claus as a motormouth hustler who’s comfortable in the modern world despite being older than electricity and indoor plumbing. While working as a repo man, he dreams of opening an off-track betting parlor across the street from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (this is by far the most interesting and original idea in the movie). As his long-suffering girlfriend, an inexplicably British meter maid, Rachel Weisz looks luminescent in her beauty and tragically overqualified for the role.

Wedding Crashers director David Dobkin helms Fred Claus with grim competence, but betrays his lack of faith in the movie early and often. Near the start, Salvation Army Santas chase Vaughn through Chicago streets and Dobkin scores the lazy retread of a rip-off of an imitation of a Keystone Cops scene with wacky Warner Brothers cartoon noises. The editor must have realized the scene was completely bereft of joy or humor and added zany sounds as a last-minute hail Mary pass. That chase is the first of four slapstick fights between Vaughn and people in Christmas costumes. The filmmakers probably thought that pitting Vaughn against elves and Santas would be an easy laugh. They were wrong. So very, very wrong.

About a half an hour in, the movie reveals its Santa: Paul Giamatti. Giamatti’s a national treasure, but he’s brutally miscast. Giamatti plays the magic jolly old soul as a deflated, harried neurotic. And while a movie about a neurotic santa could work, that concept would have to be a central part of the story, not an afterthought like it is here.

In sad reminder of a better movie, Pitch Perfect’s announcers John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks play Santa Claus’ head elf and (ugh) “Santa’s Little Helper.” Higgins, a gifted comedian, is digitally downsized into an elf for a long series of never-funny sight gags. While Higgins’ talent is underused, Banks’ vibrant screen presence and ace comic timing is sacrificed for the sake of tepidly exploit her looks by having her uptight professional character wears a tarty little santa minidress and low-cut shirt.

Speaking of ugh, let’s talk Kevin Spacey. Post #metoo, Spacey is an unwelcome screen presence. In Fred Claus, it’s even more unpleasant than usual. He plays an unctuous and spiteful efficiency expert sabotaging Santa’s workshop. He’s employed by a nebulously defined board that controls Santa and other magical entities like the Tooth Fairy. It’s a minor plot point but it lays bare the filmmakers’ lack of hope and vision. Santa, a universally beloved magical figure with infinite resources, is beholden to bottom-line obsessed stockholders. The neoliberal economy just strangled our imagination during the Obama years. We couldn’t even dream of Santa being beyond the reach of global corporate power.

Halfway through Fred Claus, I spiraled into a dark chasm of self reflection. The jokes weren’t merely unfunny. They were so incomprehensible and their intent was so elusive they inspired a nearly Lovecraftian state of confusion and dread. My hold on concepts like fun and humor grew tenuous. Events would occur and people would appear onscreen and I’d wonder why it was supposed to be funny even at a rudimentary level. Is the idea of Ludacris playing a Christmas elf inherently funny somehow? What about it was meant to trigger laughter? I probed at the concept looking for a juxtaposition, a sense of heightened absurdity or at the very least wordplay (I waited for him to brag about ho-ho-hos in different area codes but maddeningly that referential pun went unsaid). Soon, I started wondering why anything is supposed to be funny and why humans are compelled to make jokes or laugh.

At that moment, about halfway through the movie. Unexpectedly Fred Claus inspired a minor Christmas miracle. I felt compelled to give a gift which I knew would bring joy to someone’s heart.

The recipient was me. The gift was turning off the movie. Merry Christmas.