In the most surreal and, Santa help us, only truly interesting moment in “Fred Claus,” none other than former presidential sibling Roger Clinton stands up and delivers a heartfelt confession about the pain of living in a more accomplished brother’s shadow.
As Clinton blubbers about love and devotion and “being there” for his kin, it all eerily comes into focus: The bulbous nose, the ruddy skin, the faint Ozark drawl ... this guy really IS a mutant version of Bill Clinton! And, then, another revelation: He genuinely IS messed-up!
And that’s all the pathos or humor you’re likely to find in this holiday-tinted tale of sibling rivalry, in which Vince Vaughn and “Wedding Crashers” director David Dobkin reunite for the most anemic Christmas comedy since, oh, the last time Tim Allen donned white whiskers and a fat suit.
In present-day Chicago, we find Fred Claus (Vaughn) working in the repo business, scrounging together seed money for an off-site betting venture and generally trying to forget that younger brother Nic (Paul Giamatti) is the world’s most beloved holiday icon. (Sorry, Kwanzaa kitty, but it’s true.) Opportunistically, Fred only calls Nic when he needs money for bail after swindling Christmas donations.
It wasn’t always so frosty between Fred and Nic. During their childhood in some faraway, Scandinavian-type weald, Fred doted over his fat baby brother, turning cold only when the toddler’s unwavering generosity proved to be a virtue with which he could never, ever hope to compete. “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” their mom, played by Kathy Bates, colorlessly wonders aloud.
Strapped for cash, Fred accepts Nic’s invitation to join him at the North Pole for the high season, to stamp child portfolios “naughty” or “nice” — precisely the sort of cushy executive position one gives to a hanger-on brother in one’s state-of-the-art supernatural toy factory. Just as Mrs. Claus (Miranda Richardson) fears, Fred makes a proper mess of things, all under the sinister eye of a Machiavellian bean counter (Kevin Spacey) who threatens to shut Santa down.
Through it all, Vaughn flashes little of his smarmy, somewhat evil charm, which makes it all the more unsatisfying when Fred turns the corner and gets down to the business of saving Christmas. Sibling issues aside, he’s not all that flawed — he has a hot British meter-maid girlfriend (Rachel Weisz, slumming it), plays surrogate brother to a cute little neighborhood orphan (Bobb’e J. Thompson), is helpful to a romantically inept elf (John Michael Higgins from “For Your Consideration,” creepily CGI-spliced onto a little person’s body), so where are the stakes?
Saving Christmas, you say? Bah humbug. As legitimate classics such as “Scrooge,” “A Christmas Story” and, yes, “Bad Santa” have demonstrated time and time again, the best holiday stories are one or more degrees removed from Christmas itself. Christmas is bigger than that. It doesn’t need saving. If only the same could be said for awful Christmas comedies.
REVIEW | "Fred Claus"
Cast: Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti, Rachel Weisz
Behind the scenes: Directed by David Dobkin, from a script by Dan Fogelman
Rated: PG (profanity and some rude humor), 116 minutes