Written by Dan Fogelman (Cars) and directed by David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers), Fred Claus tweaks the traditional mythology of Father Christmas by introducing some old-fashioned family dysfunction into the mix, courtesy of moviedom's preeminent wise-ass, Vince Vaughn.
Vaughn stars as Santa's little-known older brother Fred. Forced to grow up in the saintly shadow of absurdly benevolent Nicholas (Paul Giamatti), he not surprisingly harbors a healthy resentment toward his portly younger brother. As adults, the two siblings are essentially estranged from each other, with beloved Nicholas presiding over his North Pole gift-giving empire and bitter Fred struggling to make ends meet as a repo man in Chicago.
But their destinies soon become aligned when an ill-fated scrap with a gang of Salvation Army volunteers lands Fred in prison. Desperate to raise the cash necessary to make bail, Fred ultimately turns to one person he knows can't say no: his famously generous kid brother.
But all is not necessarily well in Santa's village, either. Though his factory is a well-oiled machine, staffed with happy elves working diligently to make toys for children everywhere, an explosion in demand caused by worldwide population growth has made it increasingly difficult for Nicholas to meet his lofty delivery goals. Add to that an impending visit by "efficiency expert" Clyde Northcut (Kevin Spacey), a cold-hearted grinch determined to shut down Santa's entire gift-giving operation for good, and you've got one stressed-out Saint Nick.
So when incarcerated Fred calls to ask for bail money, pushover Nick agrees to help his deadbeat brother on one condition: that he travel to the North Pole and work off the debt by toiling in Santa's workshop. Soon the fate of Christmas itself hangs on the ability of the feuding brothers to resolve their differences and work together.
As a comedy, Fred Claus fails to deliver despite a promising storyline and an impressive cast. Star Vaughn's smart aleck brand of humor appears tragically ill-suited for a PG environment, and he clearly suffers from the absence of a quality improv partner like Owen Wilson or Jon Favreau. Fellow castmembers Giamatti and Spacey can't milk any laughs from their scenes with Vaughn, and even the capable Rachel Weisz seems able to do little more than wince and pout in the role of his long-suffering girlfriend.
Nonetheless, despite its many comedic shortcomings, Fred Claus managed to win me over by sheer force of heart. It's when Dobkin decides to abandon the manufactured wit and embrace the schmaltz that the movie really hits its stride. (Ironically, Dobkin did the same with Wedding Crashers -- with opposite results.) Sure, it's sappy and sentimental, but so is Christmas. That's why it's so darn popular. That, and the whole "Birth of the Savior" thing.