I know what you're asking: Is this a Christmas Movie where someone has to SAVE CHRISTMAS and do they?
Short answer: Yes.
Come to think of it, just about every Christmas Movie is about SAVING Christmas. From the Martians, from the Grinch, from Tim Allen, from adults, from the Gubernator, from just about everything, except all the right-wing nutters who really DO think there's a War on Christmas. Excuse me, Xmas.
The "SAVING Christmas" movie is so prevalent, it could be a genre all to itself. As long as you threaten Christmas verbally, physically, psychically or by omission, in the real or fantasy-sense, that's all that's required. How many movies or stop-motion animation specials can you name? Swell, I just came up with dinner-table conversation for this Christmas. And believe me, I looked at this blog's budget, that's all you're getting (I need the lumps of coal to heat the house).
So, in "Fred Claus" it turns out that Clement Moore didn't know a thing about Santa Claus' older, dumber, bitter brother. That's right, the Clauses had another son, who after the birth of little Nicholas, was left parched of his parents' affection. I mean, c'mon, how can you compete against a really cute fat baby whose first words are "Ho Ho?" It doesn't take long before Fred has transitioned from Promising To Be The Best Big Brother In The Whole World to throwing things at the little saint's head.
Fred goes off to the Real World, while Nick becomes an icon with a Factory-town at the North Pole with an indentured population of elves. Guess the North Pole is outside the jurisdiction of fair and best practices law. Anyway, Santa has built up quite the little illegal monopoly up there, plus there's the stress of reading every kid's mail, producing the specifically-requested toys for delivery and then shipping them all in one night on a twelve hour turn-around. Add to that, this year there's an Efficiency Expert (played by Kevin Spacey--when did he stop knowing how to be funny?) prowling around who seems determined to Shut Santa Down, though "Why" and "For Whom" goes unanswered (and the possibilities dance like sugar-plums in my head--China? Wal-Mart?).**
Then, Fred calls out of the blue, wanting to borrow money, and Nick is SUCH a Nicely Overwhelming Holiday Icon that he can't say no. Well, he does attach a rider saying that Fred has to work it off at the North Pole determining who is "NAUGHTY" and who is "NICE" and then condemning the former children to an unhappy Christmas. Despite this, Santa still has the snow-balls to say to his wife "I'm a Saint, sweetheart. Tough love is a little difficult for me!"
Not for me, sweetheart. "Tough" love is the only love this flick will get.
It's all meant to be whimsical, but one walks out wanting to "clock" a bell-ringer. The North Pole seems to have all the charm of a Wal-Mart town, with exactly the same sort of benefit-policy for their work-force. To determine who will be stamped "Naughty" or "Nice" Santa and his pint-sized voyeurs in the "Judgemental" Department have a magic snow-globe that they use to spy on every child's behavior. You think Homeland Security is a threat to privacy--you've never ever thought about peeping Santa. Just the emphasis that Santy sees you when you're sleeping and knows when you're awake (just like the NSA!) is probably not too jolly an idea to bring up during these liberty-crushing times, but "Fred Claus" makes it a key plot-point.
The cast does what it can, in its best "Tim Allen/Chevy Chase-in-overdrive" way, but it all amounts to hanging tinsel on a dead tree. Vaughn pulls off some nicely ad-libbed fast-talk. Paul Giamatti as Santa has a bit more sand to it than you might expect--but you just know the rest of the cast said "Hey, Giamatti's in it--there's gotta be something to this," so you have Rachel Weisz (as "Girl-friend"), Miranda Richardson (as Mrs. Santa), Kathy Bates as "Mom" Claus, all vamping, waiting for the movie to become better. And it doesn't.
Maybe next Christmas, kids.* Maybe instead of saving Christmas, someone should try to save the Christmas Movie.
"Fred Claus" is a cable-watcher, but I have a better time in Mall-traffic.
* Okay, there is one scene that works. Fred decides to go to a support group for "overshadowed" brothers, and among them is Frank Stallone, Roger Clinton, and Billy Baldwin. That scene is genuinely funny, as the 'brothers" gamely mock themselves.
** Doesn't all this turning of childhood fantasy into a corporate metaphor a little creepy? Saving Christmas, Pshaw! How about saving childhood?