The idea of Paul Giamatti as an exasperated Santa Claus is such a delightful one, that it makes you wonder why it took until 2007 for it to make it to the screen. Of course, he’s not the title character, but he’s an important part of why “Fred Claus” works better than it ought to. Vince Vaughan plays Fred Claus, Santa’s older brother and the film opens with a prologue set in Middle Age Europe where we see the birth of the Claus’ family’s second child. Nicholas is a very special child who shows generosity of spirit early in his life to his older brother’s growing resentment. As they grow up, Nicholas eventually becomes Saint Nicholas and thanks to his magical elevation, the entire family (conveniently) stops ageing, allowing us to move right up to the present day.
In the Present Day, Fred has become a Repo Man, conspicuously casting himself as the opposite to his brother. Ever looking for the next big score, Fred gets himself arrested while panhandling to raise $50,000 dollars for his business idea and when he can’t get hold of his long-suffering girlfriend (Rachel Weisz), he has no option but to reach out to his brother for help. Nicholas agrees on one condition: Fred has to come to the North Pole and help out to earn the money.
But as Fred, the black sheep of the Claus family, arrives at the North Pole, Santa and his wife (Miranda Richardson) have another visitor: efficiency expert Clyde Northcutt (Kevin Spacey), a bureaucrat with a less than festive chip on his shoulder and a personal grudge against Santa Claus.
This is a refreshing take on the whole Santa Claus mythos, and the Claus family is well cast and well played, Kathy Bates especially good as Mother Claus. Vince Vaughan is, well, Vince Vaughan but has a lighter touch here than he normally has headlining a film and he has decent chemistry with Rachel Weisz, although her role is badly underwritten. Kevin Spacey makes for a hissable ‘villain’ and only the subplot about an elf romance between John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks feels tacked on and unnecessary.
While there’s nothing particularly innovative in the plot, which ticks off the requirements for a heart-warming Christmas comedy with commendable efficiency, the cast are up for the fun and games that you need in movies like this and at the centre of it all, anchoring the entire thing is Giamatti’s Santa Claus – easily the best thing about this film. There are also a couple of sly nods to Kevin Spacey’s involvement in the previous year’s “Superman Returns” (at this point Warner Brothers were probably still hoping the franchise was a goer) and some lovely little flourishes in the finale as the ‘true meaning of Christmas’ morals are layered on thick and fast.
Not a classic for the ages by any means, this is still slick, well-made Christmas entertainment, with everything you could wish for wrapped up in a very neat little package.