DVD Review: Fred Claus (2007)

Flying onto DVD & Blu-ray on November 25

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Talk about the ultimate black sheep-- Jan Brady has nothing on Fred Claus. The older brother of the boy who would become St. Nicolas, Fred discovered at a young age that sainthood is a tough act to follow. Driven to rage by being constantly overshadowed by his brother's accomplishments and given an annual reminder of his success with the incessant caroling, holiday displays and more-- Fred (played by Vince Vaughn) decided that since he didn't want to join the family business making toys at the North Pole, he'd move to Chicago and become the polar opposite of his brother Santa (Paul Giamati).

Instead of selflessly delivering goods, Fred becomes a repo-man, taking away flat screen televisions and elaborate presents he sometimes moves directly into his own apartment and delivering monologues to his young neighbor Slam urging him not to "drink the Kool-Aid" that is Christmas by being "a cheerleader for Santa Claus," whom he likens to a megalomaniac embodiment of a shell game con artist. An inconsiderate and absent-minded boyfriend to the lovely British meter maid Wanda (Rachel Weisz taking on a Dickensian, wrong-side-of-London accent), when Fred ends up in the slammer following a hilarious confrontation with a veritable army of Salvation Army santas (that seem to be as stealthy as soldiers), he's forced to call his brother for help.

With St. Nick's wife Annette (Miranda Richardson) trying to convince her "closet-eater" husband to practice tough love which doesn't quite fit the saintly mandate, Santa strikes a deal with his brother offering him financial assistance for an upcoming business venture if he'll come work for the handout at the North Pole. Grudgingly, Fred agrees and predictably, he wreaks endless havoc from taking out his frustration with carols by inspiring an impromptu Elvis Presley dance party to helping a shy Elf (Christopher Guest and Kath and Kim scene stealer John Michael Higgins) make a love connection with the mathematically gifted yet Victoria's Secret styled hot elf (Elizabeth Banks) to getting in a wicked snowball fight with his brother until ultimately the family stages an intervention.

By this point the film which seems to draw a large majority of its humor from taking a cynical view of the holiday with mean-spirited jokes (think Bad Santa-- the PG rated version) begins to grow long-winded, not sure whether or not it's masquerading as a comedy about sibling rivalry a la Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly's Stepbrothers or as a companion piece to the much lighter, brighter, and surprisingly contemporary yet nostalgic Will Ferrell vehicle Elf.

The beautifully packaged DVD and Blu-ray disc from Warner Brothers which offers feature length commentary by its filmmaker David Dobkin also adds more than twenty-five minutes of additional scenes, some of which further shift the story's theme from "naughty" to "nice" as well as the opportunity to view it in either its theatrical widescreen aspect ratio which is enhanced for widescreen televisions or in a formatted full-screen version to fit the standard square shape. Additionally, offering both language and subtitle options for English, Spanish, and French speakers-- one of the true audio highlights in its sharp Dolby Digital 5.1 surround is the movie's terrific soundtrack which contains not just holiday classics but other less-than-predictable songs which make the film much more effective including The Byrds' cover of Bob Dylan's "My Back Pages," although only certain numbers made it onto its incredible companion album you can explore below.

Filled with Vaughn's trademark whirlwind monologues and seemingly spontaneous references and jokes that make even uneven films like The Break-Up work, he elevates it well and the Jingle All the Way meets National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation inspired chaotic chase through the streets early on is a complete joy as is a ridiculously creative and funny meeting for Siblings Anonymous where recovering siblings like Frank Stallone, Roger Clinton, and Stephen Baldwin air their frustrations with their famous brothers. Yet, while that is hands-down one of the most ingenious portions of the film, especially when Stephen nearly comes to blows with Fred Claus until he begins repeating his mantra, "that's not Alec," the jokes and tenor of a film which finds Santa being threatened by a struggling economy when efficiency expert Kevin Spacey arrives all too ready to fire him with a three strikes system, doesn't quite know which audience for which it's playing.

Far too nasty for young children and with jokes such as the "I'm a recovering sibling" scene that are sure to go over their head-- it seems like it's shooting for the demographic Vaughn usually reaches of young men who latched onto his frat-pack comedy alongside Owen Wilson--Wedding Crashers (from Claus director David Dobkin who also directed Vaughn in the darker indie Clay Pigeons). Yet, in its indecision in awkwardly moving from a storybook like opening (similar to Elf which was made by his Swingers pal Jon Favreau) to an angry, embittered tale of family dysfunction that always comes to the front burner during the holidays, it loses some of its focus in an overly long second half.

Additionally, while we know it's Fred's story after all as our narrator reminds us, it is a Christmas movie and unfortunately, wastes its lovable Sideways and American Splendor curmudgeon star Paul Giamatti as a spineless Santa who eats his feelings to such an extent that he's developed acid reflux, insomnia, and problems in the sack. The same goes for the film's other Oscar winners and nominees like Kathy Bates, Miranda Richardson, Rachel Weisz, and Kevin Spacey (who does have one brilliant in-joke about wanting to be Superman as a nod to his Lex Luthor role in the newest Warner Brothers film) who aren't given enough to work with and especially in one plot that is endearing, too little time is spent on the cute John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks subplot.

Yet despite its many, many flaws, and an overwhelming urge to go back into the cutting room and trim away at least fifteen minutes, there's enough good stuff in the film to make it watchable and even memorable but it's muddled by its angry script from Cars and Bolt screenwriter Dan Fogelman (who despite this, deserves ample kudos along with story creator Jessie Nelson for a wonderful premise), that I'm guessing went through too many rewrites which led to such a thematically confusing finished product.

While for fans of Vaughn, like myself, who've been enjoying his career ever since he went to "Vegas, baby, Vegas," even though admittedly he seems to play the same character repeatedly (aside from a few wonderful against-type roles in movies like A Cool, Dry Place and Into the Wild), it's worth a look, especially if you have a thing for holiday movies and it makes a nice companion piece to the superior Elf.

Still unfortunately for Claus, Vaughn definitely said it best when he told Favreau he was "so money [that he didn't] even know it" in Swingers as ultimately, it's Favreau's Elf that in the future is destined to become a new contemporary Christmas classic.

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas
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