Vince Vaughn as Fred Claus
Paul Giamatti as Nick 'Santa' Claus
John Michael Higgins as Willie
Miranda Richardson as Annette Claus
Rachel Weisz as Wanda
Kevin Spacey as Clyde
Kathy Bates as Mother Claus
Trevor Peacock as Papa Claus
Elizabeth Banks as Charlene
Bobb'e J. Thompson as Slam
Ludacris as DJ Donnie
Directed by David Dobkin
Somewhat in the vein of John Favreu's "Elf" in reverse, "Fred Claus" is the year's first Christmas film, but luckily it manages to - mostly – deal in real heart without going overboard into sentimentality, largely thanks to an excellent cast and an idea that, if not entirely inspired, is still well executed.
Vince Vaughn is Fred, Santa Claus' older, smart-alecky, reprobate brother, which means he essentially plays the same character he's been doing for years now. It's mostly the usual rapid-fire huckster shtick that, it must be said, he is very good at, and it's still funny here though it does wear thin after a bit. Rather than working hard and honestly, he bounces from opportunity to opportunity, looking for that next 'big score.' Which means he's eternally cash poor, and with time running out on his latest deal he's forced to do the one thing he hates most... go to his brother Santa Claus (Paul Giamatti) for help.
And it's at that point the film starts to shine. Director David Dobkin ("The Wedding Crashers") has assembled a first-rate supporting cast, and it is largely on their shoulders that "Fred Claus" works as well as it does. Front and center is Giamatti, who has the seemingly impossible job of turning a one-dimensional icon into a flesh and blood person, but he pulls it off wonderfully. He's kind and caring the way Santa should be, but also stressed out by his job and filled with conflicting emotions about his brother. Kevin Spacey, as the accountant who keeps an eye on all of the holidays and shuts them down if they go over budget (though it's never made exactly clear who he is working for, beyond the mysterious 'Board'), is as good as ever. In a role that could easily be walked through, he brings a fair amount of dry wit and genuine emotion. It goes without saying that probably the best scene in the film is Giamatti and Spacey's final confrontation.
The rest of the supporting cast doesn't get quite as much to do, Rachel Weisz as Fred's long suffering girlfriend is particularly wasted, but what they do have, they do well. Kathy Bates' overbearing mother is particularly good. Standing in front of this cast, Vaughn's limitations are more readily apparent, but they don't really drag the film down either. He's probably been doing this particular character too long now, though, and needs to move on.
"Fred Claus" is the type of film where execution is more important to its success than conception, with most of the setups well used from other films, though a few – particularly a bit early on where Fred is chased into a toy store and beat up by a horde of Salvation Army Santa's – work particularly well.
"Fred Claus" will never go down in history as a holiday classic, or even one of Vaughn's better known films, but a sterling cast lifts up what could have been easy mediocrity, and instead reaches levels of genuine charm.