LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter)- With Santa Claus movies like “Fred Claus,” who needs Ebenezer Scrooge?
Even more confounding than this mirthless, misanthropic mess is the involvement of such talented people as Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti, Miranda Richardson, Rachel Weisz, Kathy Bates and Kevin Spacey. Holiday films invariably perform well opening week, and the reunion of Vaughn with his “Wedding Crashers” director, David Dobkin, should give Warner Bros. a momentary holiday lift. It might not last long, though. One additional problem: Family films should not clock in at 115 minutes.
The gimmick in Dan Fogelman’s screenplay (with story credit shared with co-producer Jessie Nelson) is that Santa (Giamatti) has a disgruntled older brother, long on the losing end of a sibling rivalry. So it’s “The Odd Couple” with a Christmas backdrop as Fred Claus (Vaughn) is his brother’s polar opposite: Santa gives; Fred, a repo man, takes away. Santa is cheerful; Fred hates the world.
Needing a chunk of change from Santa to get out of jail and start another get-rich-quick scheme, Fred agrees to visit the North Pole to work in his brother’s workshop. His arrival nearly destroys Christmas.
Production designer Allan Cameron’s North Pole set is the usual candy-cane concoction of an Alpine shopping mall on crack, but its denizens are a cheerless lot. Exactly how many dark personalities can a Christmas movie contain?
Let’s see, there’s Fred, of course, but he’s the life of the party compared to Spacey’s efficiency expert. The guy wants to fire Santa and outsource Christmas to the South Pole. Wearing dark-rimmed glasses and a suit so he looks like a demented Jack Benny, Spacey is one of many dark clouds.
Mrs. Claus (Richardson) barely tolerates Fred, Fred’s own mother (Bates) only finds fault with him, his fiancee (Weisz) is on the verge of leaving him, and even Santa loses his temper and fights with his brother.
Nearly every actor seems miscast. Vaughn looks like he wondered in from another movie. Giamatti gets lost in his fat suit. Richardson has nothing to do but frown. Neither Weisz nor Bates can get any purchase on her character. And Spacey plays the only note given him.
The film isn’t just not funny, it is off-putting. Some of the elves are played by little people, but others including John Michael Higgins and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges are regular-sized actors who are shrunk though visual effects. Nothing is stranger though than a superfluous scene in which Fred attends a Brothers Anonymous meeting where Frank Stallone, Roger Clinton and Stephen Baldwin share their angst over having famous brothers. Who thought that was a funny idea?
The Claus family confrontations are poorly written, the occasional slapstick action is weakly executed -- these look like warmed-over leftovers from Disney’s “The Santa Clause” series -- and below-the-line contributions surprisingly mediocre for a Joel Silver production.
Fred Claus: Vince Vaughn
Nicholas Claus: Paul Giamatti
Annette Claus: Miranda Richardson
Charlene: Elizabeth Banks
Willie: John Michael Higgins
Wanda: Rachel Weisz
Mother Claus: Kathy Bates
Clyde: Kevin Spacey
DJ Donnie: Chris “Ludacris” Bridges
Director: David Dobkin; Screenwriter: Dan Fogelman; Producers: Joel Silver, David Dobkin, Jessie Nelson; Executive producer: Paul Hitchcock; Director of photography: Remi Adefarasin; Production designer: Allan Cameron; Music: Christophe Beck; Costume designer: Anna Sheppard; Editor: Mark Livolsi.