Let’s be honest. I did not see Fred Claus in the theaters last year for the same reason most of you right-thinking people didn’t either. It reeked of big-budget holiday bloat, and as much as I love Vince Vaughn, we’ve seen this performance in half a dozen other Vaughn comedies, from Swingers and Made, through Old School and Dodgeball, right up to Wedding Crashers and The Break-Up.
But as James noted in his Four Christmases review the other day, there’s a reason Vaughn keeps taking these roles and we eventually show up to watch them: He’s found his niche and he’s really, really terrific in it. (One of the great things about Vaughn is that
no amount of make-up can hide when he’s obviously hungover, which
appears to be much of the time. I wouldn’t be surprised if the bags
under his eyes have their own representation.)
For the record, two of my favorite Vaughn performances are not actually in films. One is the outtakes from the hotel room scene in Made, where director Jon Favreau simply lets Vaughn riff, cranking that Swingers Thing up to “puree” for a good ten minutes. Made is interesting not just because it’s Fav’s directorial debut–before Elf, before Iron Man–but it’s also Vaughn returning to the character type that made him famous: Trent from Swingers. You might not recall, but after Swingers, Vaughn tried to play it straight, taking mostly non-comedic roles in films like The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Clay Pigeons, Return to Paradise, The Cell, and most infamously, Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. None of that really worked out all that well, and Made is him letting out a sigh and saying “Okay, you want Trent, I’ll give you Trent.” And so he has for the past seven years. (A couple rare and commendable exceptions were supporting roles in Thumbsucker and Into the Wild.)
My second favorite Vaughn performance was his guest-hosting stint on the Late Show when Letterman had the shingles.That’s where Vaughn showed the real appeal behind his shtick: It’s not just the get-with-the-program speed-jabber, but that behind the full-court-press verbal assault is a charming regular guy who wants everyone involved, on-board, and down with him. The hook for Vaughn’s “Trent” character is that he’s not elitist, not weird, and doesn’t want to get you in trouble or ruin your life–he just wants you to join his party.
Which brings us, finally, back to Fred Claus, directed by David Dobkins, who previously worked with Vaughn in Clay Pigeons and Wedding Crashers. As the n’er-do-well older brother of Nick “Santa” Claus (a wonderful, achingly sincere Paul Giamatti), Vaughn’s character is still Trent, with a bit more con-man cynicism layered on.
Let’s see how fast I can get the plot out of the way: Fred, a repo
man, is resentful of Nick’s perfection and success; Nick still adores
and enables his feckless big brother; Fred needs money; Nick hires him
on to work at the North Pole where he is comically much larger and
wilder than the elves (who include Ludacris and the always note-perfect
John Michael Higgins); and much slap-sticking and groin-hitting ensues.
An efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey, just barely bothering to show up)
from some sort of Department of Holidays is trying to shut Santa down,
Fred causes trouble, Fred has a change of heart, Fred sets out to save Christmas.
Kathy Bates and Miranda Richardson are left to sass up the sidelines
as Nick’s mother and wife, while Rachel Wietz is Fred’s British
girlfriend back in Chicago, and a full-sized Elizabeth
Banks is on hand wearing a low-cut Santa’s Little Helper outfit. And
for you Role Model fans, young Bobb’e J. Thompson plays it
much, much cleaner as the Tiny Tim who eventually warms and reforms
Fred’s Scroogey heart.
Actually, I probably didn’t need to tell you that much about the
plot–you no doubt know it by heart anyway from any number of Christmas
TV shows or movies. But a movie like Fred Claus suffers a bit
from hype and marketing. It didn’t do big-time holiday business last
year for exactly the reason I’ve mentioned: everyone knows they’ve seen
this film and this Vaughn role before. It arrived in theaters smelling
like what it is: a large, kinda crass Hollywood packaging and marketing
deal, cynically manufactured to cash in as a place to drop the kids off
while you do your holiday shopping.In that sense, it reminds me a lot of Bill Murray’s Scrooged 20
years ago. All kinds of star power and glitzy budget, but also a sheen
of commercial interests and carefully calculated business sense.
yet, like Scrooged, Fred Claus, for all its obviousness, turns out to be utterly winning and, yes, heart-warming. I love Scrooged–in
theory it’s a mess, but it seems to get me more every year. Yes, I’m a sucker for the cynical, sarcastic comic actor with the heart of holiday cheer. In fact, if I have a complaint about Fred Claus, it’s
that where Scrooged ends up, like its source material, with a plea for
us all to love and care for one another a little more, Fred Claus tilts toward the notion that we should give each other more presents.
Keeping his routine PG, Vaughn piles on the
manic lovableness until he’s won you over. (Plus musically there are
great set-pieces riding on Elvis’ terrific “Rubbernecking,” back from a
few years in over-exposure jail, and one of my favorite seasonal pop songs,
“Christmas Rapping” by the Waitresses.) By the third act you’ll even
forgive Vaughn and the movie their shameless tear-jerking. In fact, you
may find a tear or two shamelessly jerked. (You think you can get through Sinead O’Conner’s “Silent Night” with dry
eyes? I dare you.)
We can all name the classic Christmas movies, the ones that show up
every season decked in beloved glory. But I’m guessing a lot of you have a stack of holiday
DVDs on your shelf that you actually want to haul out and watch
each year–the comfort-food movies. For me, it’s the really silly,
cinematically uneven Christmas comedies. Sure, I adore It’s A Wonderful Life and White Christmas, but what I really love to do when wrapping presents or decorating is pop in Scrooged, Christmas Vacation, and yes, Ernest Saves Christmas. Welcome to that shelf, Fred Claus.