A few years ago Saturday Night Live alum Will Ferrell surprised moviegoers by starring in a sweet, charming, and genuinely hilarious Christmas movie. Elf became a new holiday favorite-appropriate and, more important, enjoyable for viewers of all ages.
Trailers for Fred Claus suggested that Vince Vaughn, fellow member of Hollywood's infamous "frat pack," was going to follow in those footsteps. The premise was promising enough. To earn bail and seed-money for a get-rich-quick venture, Fred (Vaughn), the conniving, underachieving brother of Santa (Paul Giamatti), agrees to work in the toy factory at the North Pole until Christmas. In the process he tampers with the "naughty" list, attempts to spark an elf riot, and comes to grips with the sibling rivalry that has plagued him since his brother's birth.
This gives director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers) plenty to work with, but instead he strings together a series of disjointed plot lines that apparently have no other purpose than to cater to Vaughn's rapid-fire comedy style. Though some scenes are individually funny, they result in a chaotic story with underdeveloped performances.
But the biggest problem with Fred Claus isn't that it's not very good, it's that it pulls a bait-and-switch on parents expecting to see Hollywood's favorite bad boy in a film they can feel comfortable taking their kids to. (Warning: spoiler ahead.)
Along with the potty jokes, subtle sexual innuendo, and mild profanity that often pass for PG these days, the film holds up as an example of family and commitment something that is neither. In the opening scenes Fred's girlfriend Wanda (Rachel Weisz) accuses him of being selfish in part because he refuses to move in with her. But after Fred spends 100 minutes learning the importance of love and self-sacrifice, he is ready not to marry Wanda, but to shack up with her.
Because it is the central act meant to represent Fred's growth, this doesn't feel like an unthinking choice by unregenerate screenwriters (in fact, the film's natural progression leads so obviously to a proposal, its absence is conspicuous). It feels like a deliberate attempt to place the characters' live-in relationship on par with that shared between a husband and wife. And it makes for an uncomfortably cold ending to what was advertised as a traditional heartwarming movie.