In the tradition of traditional feel-good Christmas cheer movies comes that most untraditional (un)sentimental performer, Vince Vaughn. Mr. Vaughn — he of crude humor and self-serving wisecracks — is Fred Claus, living an unfulfilling life in his younger brother Nick’s (Paul Giamatti) celebrity shadow. To us, and children everywhere, the angelic Nicholas is known by the holier-than-thou nickname, Saint Nick.
Having been reared by his mother (Kathy Bates) in the overachieving legacy of his junior brother, Fred’s grown up despising yuletide. The whole “Father Christmas” thingy just hits a little too close to home. So much so that every year around you-know-who’s b’day Fred tells anyone within earshot that Santa is just a guy “who craves the spotlight… he’s a fame junkie, a megalomaniac!” None of this threatens the ne’er-do-well’s pride enough that it’s beneath him to bum money off his jolly kinfolk. Fred’s broke.
Vaughn’s taking the path of many of his ancestral adult-geared jeered and cheered fellow class clowns, like Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and Will Ferrell, having gone full-fledged family-friendly by spreading holiday happiness with the strategically released Christmastime Christmas movie. Where it is that Vaughn moves one standard deviation away from the ho-hum-familiar career bell curve lay in the fact that Fred Claus is not so much parent-tolerable, as its downright liberating-ly observant. It has something on its merry mind — the emancipating release that comes when we adults are able to finally let go of our individually troublesome pasts to live free.
The biggest holiday icon of them all is a big – enabling – fat guy that can’t say no. To food or his brother. Kris Kringle’s a closet eater whose wife won’t let him just hand over to his degenerate brother the $50,000 he indelicately asks for. He’ll practice so-called tough love by letting him do minimal work for it, pitching in at the North Pole.
Santa’s toy-making elves can’t keep up with modern production demands. Children are asking for more gadgets and gizmos than ever, while economic pressures are forcing the workshop to make more with less. If Santa can’t meet his quota of one toy for every child his outfit will be no longer. Mr. Northcutt, a killjoy efficiency expert (a perfectly cast smarmy Kevin Spacey), sent cryptically by “The Board” to check up on manufacturing, is gleefully aiming to put the North Pole out of business: “Streamlining, consolidating, and outsourcing operations to [of all places] the South Pole.”
None of this does well to aid in Saint Nick’s diminishing health. He’s under a lot of stress, living with acid reflux, sleep apnea, and back problems. Never mind that he travels unprotected from wintertime elements by sleigh, going up and down soot-filled chimneys. It’s no small wonder that the butterball hasn’t succumbed to congestive heart failure. As thoughtfully played Giamatti, Santa is a subdued spirit — a weary but wise man who’s seen the ups and downs that’ve come with giving to, and for, the ages.
Brother Fred’s put to work in the “Naughty-Nice Department,” his authoritarian responsibility being the sole judge and jury of whether each child in the world has behaved well enough to be deserving of the gifts they’ve asked for. A job easier said than done, even for someone with a cynical worldview. When the narcissistic Fred looks in on the mischievous children of the world through Santa’s Snow Globe — an Orwellian eye-in-the-sky — he quite understandably begins giving way to a crisis of conscience (“Every kid deserves a present on Christmas”). Vaughn’s is a subtle transformation from hard hard-ass to softer hard-ass. He’s not sickishly born-again, trying to yank at our heart strings. Fred’s a middle-aged man with a chance to do the right thing for the world and, just as importantly, himself.
In the movie’s most comedically inspired scene, Fred visits a group therapy session for “Siblings Anonymous” in which Frank Stallone (Sylvester’s brother), presidential brother Roger Clinton (“My name is Roger Clinton and I’m a recovering sibling”), and actor Stephen Baldwin give personal coping testimonials. With helpful insight from his fellow overlooked brothers and sisters, and a knowing wink to wiser viewers, Vaughn walks the line between ridiculous and sublime. He figures out how to lift the past’s burdensome weight off his — and possibly our — shoulders.
As is the perennially annual case with Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch, no amount of family baggage – or insatiable corporate greed – can undermine that which comes with Christmas bliss. The movie is a welcome derivative diversion to wrapping paper and bows strewn about and stomachs stuffed with festive merriment.