If Vince Vaughn isn’t being sarcastic and foul-mouthed, he’s probably not fulfilling his comedic potential, and that’s certainly the case with Fred Claus, a holiday fable far too safe and toothless to take advantage of the actor’s ribald strengths. The thing is, though, that while David Dobkin’s film is not “adult” enough to properly utilize its star, it’s simultaneously too mature and mean-spirited to deliver soft and cozy Yuletide cheer. What we have, then, is a mess in which a suitable tone is never established, with grown-up relationship and business-related dilemmas uneasily coexisting with childish sight gags and snowball fights, all of which seem destined to appeal to nobody.
Long resentful of his brother St. Nick (Paul Giamatti), Fred Claus (Vaughn) works as a repo man in Chicago, neglecting his British meter maid girlfriend Wanda (Rachel Weisz) and bah-humbugging to his African-American child buddy Slam (Bobb’e J. Thompson). Barely sketched developments lead Fred to join his bro in the North Pole, where he’s tasked with stamping kids’ files “naughty” or “nice,” and winds up teaching head elf Willie (John Michael Higgins) how to get with hottie Charlene (Elizabeth Banks) and helping foil efficiency evaluator Clyde’s (Kevin Spacey) evil plot to permanently shut down Santa’s operation. Fred’s cynicism is meant to humorously clash with Santa’s generosity, but with his dialogue neutered of anything that might be deemed inappropriate—Bad Santa this is not—Vaughn motormouths his way to nowhere funny. Fred’s eventual warm and fuzzy revelations are undercut by the film’s inability to establish any of its characters or scenarios as particularly endearing.
Though Dobkin’s elaborate sets have the requisite seasonal twinkle, the best thing one can say about his direction is that it doesn’t call attention to its own blandness. A scene in which Fred attends Siblings Anonymous (where he meets Frank Stallone, Roger Clinton, and Stephen Baldwin) is awkwardly pitched for parents in the audience, and Clyde’s infatuation with a Superman cape seems like an ill-fitting jokey reference to Superman Returns. For sheer embarrassment, however, nothing tops the fact that Fred Claus utilizes the same big-head-on-midget-body special effects technique from Little Man, and manages to make it look even cheaper and creepier.