Release Date:  November 9, 2007
Rating:  PG (mild language, some rude humor)
Genre:  Comedy
Run Time:  116 min.
Director:  David Dobkin
Actors:  Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti, Kevin Spacey, Miranda Richardson, Rachel Weisz, Kathy Bates, Elizabeth Banks, Ludacris

When I first saw the trailers for Elf four years ago, I had a hard time believing that Will Ferrell, an actor primarily known for his particularly vulgar brand of humor, could be both funny and charming in a movie for the family set.

In fact, I think Ferrell’s wide-eyed innocence while sporting those hideous yellow tights really surprised a lot of people. His depth as an actor, coupled with a well-written story and a great supporting cast, however, has arguably made it one of the new Christmas classics.

Of course, when I first heard about Vince Vaughn trying to pull off sort of the same family-friendly scenario, my suspicions were on high alert again. Especially when I heard that Fred Claus was directed by the same guy who did the raunchy, R-rated Wedding Crashers a couple of years ago.

But then I got to thinking, if Ferrell can pull it off, why not Vaughn? The premise certainly seemed promising enough:  Disgruntled older brother reconciles with his younger, more famous brother after a trip to the North Pole. Lessons are learned, laughs are enjoyed by all—a merry start to the holiday season, right?

Hardly.

Let’s get something straight right off the bat:  As much as Fred Claus tries to be Elf, even borrowing the whole my-oversized-legs-are-waaay-too-long-for-a-tiny-elf-sized-bunk-bed routine, Fred Claus is no Elf.

From the outset, there’s a certain sparkle that’s missing. Maybe it’s because a weathered-looking Vaughn looks like he could really use a good, long nap. Or perhaps it’s because the story fails to grab your attention, let alone your heart. It ultimately wastes a crop of talented actors including:  Rachel Weisz as the girlfriend who’d never date a guy like Fred if the script hadn’t required her to, Kevin Spacey as the Grinch-like productivity inspector who looks like he’s perpetually bored while trying to be sinister or Mr. Claus himself, played by a usually stellar Paul Giamatti, who probably just got tired of playing depressed writer types and signed up for this role instead.

But whatever the reason, Fred Claus manages to ignite about as many warm and fuzzy holiday feelings as a fruitcake. Or a stocking filled with coal.

When we first meet Fred, he’s a jilted little kid who has clearly had enough of his saintly younger brother. After a few too many “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” comments from Mama Claus (Kathy Bates), Fred’s fate as a bad grown-up is almost sealed.

Fast forward a few years, and Fred’s a sketchy, Chicago-based repo man who’s resorted to ripping off charity Santas in a get-rich-quick attempt to open a restaurant. But when Fred’s smooth-talking charm isn’t enough to get him out of trouble with the police, let alone with his far-too-patient girlfriend, Wanda (Weisz), he winds up in jail with only one way to get out:  Asking his brother for bail money.

Much to Fred’s chagrin, however, Santa ain’t writing that check without seeing his long-lost brother first. So Fred makes his way north, while his brother hopes some time in the workshop will make Fred a better man.

I don’t even have to mention what happens next because you’ve probably already seen the trailer. But needless to say, Vaughn’s repeated attempts at being funny in one awkward situation after another fall flat, along with any signs of Christmas spirit ... which is disappointing considering the film’s potential.

Note: One of the movie’s actual funny moments comes courtesy of Stephen Baldwin, who’s attending a “Sibling Recovery” group, which is much like an AA meeting. That performance, along with other famous faces who show up like Roger Clinton, actually elicit some laughs.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Some social drinking.
  • Language/Profanity:  A few mild expletives scattered throughout.
  • Sex/Nudity:  None, although Charlene (one of Santa’s helpers) always sports a cleavage-baring outfit. It’s also implied, and later stated, that Fred and Wanda live together.
  • Violence:  None that isn’t of the comedic variety.