[Screen It]

(2007) (Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti) (PG)

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Comedy: Santa's Christmas-hating older brother agrees to work at the North Pole for money he needs to start his own business.
Ever since they were kids long, long ago, Fred Claus (VINCE VAUGHN) has always been jealous of his younger brother, Nick (PAUL GIAMATTI), mainly because of the attention their mother, (KATHY BATES), paid to Nick. That was cemented forever when his little brother became Saint Nick, a.k.a. Santa Claus, and thus froze them at their current ages for all eternity.

Now in the present day, Fred is a bitter repo man who only cares about himself, thus meaning he doesn't treat his meter maid girlfriend, Wanda (RACHEL WEISZ), the way he should, even going so far as forgetting her birthday. While he does spend some time with a neighbor kid, Slam (BOBB'E J. THOMPSON), he's most interested in opening an off-track betting parlor.

However, he doesn't have the money to secure the spot, and thus calls on his brother for a loan. As it's near Christmas, Nick is quite busy, and his wife, Annette (MIRANDA RICHARDSON), wants Santa to practice some "tough love" with his brother and not give him the money. Having a heart of gold, though, Nick can't turn down his big brother, but does so with the caveat that Fred must travel to the North Pole and work for the money. Accordingly, head elf Willie (JOHN MICHAEL HIGGINS) picks up Fred and delivers him to the toy factory at the top of the world.

There, he meets the likes of Santa's little helper, the cleavage-sporting Charlene (ELIZABETH BANKS), as well as DJ Donnie (CHRIS "LUDACRIS BRIDGES) who spins the same tune over and over again for the factory workers. Then there's Clyde Northcutt (KEVIN SPACEY), an efficiency expert from a company that oversees all holiday operations, and he seems intent on finding anything that might justify him shutting down Nick and his North Pole operation.

As Fred works in the naughty and nice kid sorting office, he disrupts the normal routine to such a degree that he ends up unknowingly helping Clyde's cause. With the big day quickly approaching, he must then decide what to do and whether to help his brother save Christmas.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
Back in the old days when survival of the fittest truly meant just that, sibling rivalry was a big deal. After all, those who didn't push their way to the front of the line to be fed and cared for by mom and/or dad often met an untimely demise. Nowadays, such brotherly or sisterly emulation usually isn't a matter of life or death, but it can be traumatic for some individuals who feel they live in the constant shadow of one or more siblings.

That very subject is detailed throughout the holiday comedy "Fred Claus," but particularly in one scene. That's when a number of somewhat famous celebrities -- with the last names of Stallone, Clinton and Baldwin -- complain about their better-known brothers.

The point of the otherwise peculiar, oddly placed, and only briefly amusing moment is for the titular character to realize he's not alone in his jealousy predicament, and that he should accept his brother for who and what he is as well as both of their places in the world.

That feel good revelation as well as the identity of his brother won't likely surprise anyone in this lame comedy that's not only poorly executed, but also feels late to the holiday movie game, what with three "Santa Clause" flicks already beating it to the North Pole punch and then some.

Here, Fred's jealousy has led him to become a repo man who wants to open an off-track betting parlor, but he doesn't have the down payment money to secure his location. Since he only looks out for himself, that not only means he quickly drives away his girlfriend (Rachel Weisz, mysteriously appearing in a film like this, but also, for reasons never capitalized on, playing a meter maid), but also asks his famous bro for the cash.

Since Santa has a heart of gold, he can't say no, but the caveat of the deal is that Fred must put in some hours working at the North Pole. Accordingly, we're then treated to shot after shot of that locale's elaborate production design (shown off as if this is the first time we've ever seen it presented that way, which obviously isn't the case), as well as the Christmas-hating protagonist who ends up - natch - upsetting the balance of things there.

Throw in an evil efficiency expert with childhood issues, various performers (including John Michael Higgins and Ludacris) whose heads have digitally been placed onto little people's bodies, and enough Christmas songs to fill a soundtrack or two, and the stage is supposed to be set for a fun time for all (frivolity, slapstick, and heart-warming moments included).

The only problem is that it isn't particularly interesting or entertaining, the attempted humor is forced, and the emotional moments are about as artificial as they come. While little kids might enjoy some parts of the film (mostly the zany action and goofy moments), older ones and especially adults will likely equate it to the proverbial lump of coal in the old stocking.

All of which might surprise fans of "Wedding Crashers," since this movie reunites its director, David Dobkin, with one of its stars, Vince Vaughn. One of the film's issues is that the actor is coasting here, adding little to the character type he played in that and various other pics. Throw in the fact that he isn't likable (despite inhabiting the Scrooge type character we know will have a change of heart by the film's end), and the result is a bland to unpleasant experience.

Another problem is the waste of a notable array of performers, some of which are miscast and/or simply are unable to do anything with their characters. Beyond Weisz, that includes Paul Giamatti as Saint Nick, Kevin Spacey doing the one-note villain thing as the man desirous of shutting down Christmas, Kathy Bates as the boys' mother, and Miranda Richardson as her daughter-in-law.

Hampered by a lame script -- courtesy of Dan Fogelman -- that offers few if any surprises or novelty, the cast members simply go through the motions. As a result, neither they nor the crew manage to generate the magic needed to make a genre flick like this deliver the goods. Trying to be both a dark comedy and family friendly holiday offering, the pic simply doesn't work on either, or most any other level for that matter. More No-No-No than Ho-Ho-Ho, "Fred Claus" rates as just a 3 out of 10.

Reviewed October 23, 2007 / Posted November 9, 2007

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