Generally funny yet bittersweet tale of a sad-sack Chicago repo man (Vince Vaughn) who travels to the North Pole to help his younger, more popular brother, St. Nicholas (Paul Giamatti), at Christmas, while a devious efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey) threatens to shut down the elves' toy factory. Underneath the laughs, Dan Fogelman's script is a surprisingly resonant take on sibling rivalry, with lots of heart-tugging sentiment, and solid messages about family, self-esteem, forgiveness and ultimately redemption. Under David Dobkin's deft direction, there's sharp work by the leads and the classy supporting cast (Miranda Richardson, Rachel Weisz, Kathy Bates and John Michael Higgins). Mild innuendo, an implied premarital living arrangement, a suggestive costume, and some crass humor and expressions. A-II -- adults and adolescents. (PG) 2007
The holiday season gets off to a surprisingly delightful start with "Fred Claus" (Warner Bros.), a generally funny yet bittersweet tale about Santa Claus, aka St. Nicholas (Paul Giamatti), and his older, neglected brother, Fred (Vince Vaughn).
Ever since childhood (portrayed in a fairy-tale setting), Fred, a quiet, good-natured boy, had been in Nick's more showily gregarious, always smiling, shadow. With all of this, baby Nick became the apple of their mother's (Kathy Bates) eye. Once Nicholas became a saint, so the story's conceit goes, neither he nor his family would ever age.
Cut to present-day Chicago where Fred works as a repo man, as we observe him hauling away a pampered little girl's prized plasma TV. Things are tough financially for Fred, who is also out of sorts with meter-maid girlfriend Wanda (Rachel Weisz), who is frustrated by Fred's commitment-phobic ways.
Fred turns to Nick for monetary help, and the latter offers him a job getting out the children's toys for Christmas, so Fred is whisked to the North Pole (good special effects) by sleigh-driving elf Willie (John Michael Higgins). Once at the toy factory, he shakes things up in his affable blue-collar manner, including countermanding DJ Donnie's (Ludacris) one-song repertoire of "Here Comes Santa Claus" which Fred finds wearying.
Childhood rivalries underscore the brothers' day-to-day relationship, and are not helped by the unspoken disapproval that Mrs. Claus (Miranda Richardson) has for her brother-in-law.
Nick's biggest concern, however, is the presence of cold-hearted efficiency expert Clyde Northcutt (Kevin Spacey), who, it is patently obvious, plans to close down Santa's entire operation if Nick chalks up three infractions.
You just know Fred will eventually save the day, along with helping pint-sized Willie woo his statuesque lady love Charlene (Elizabeth Banks) and supply a troubled street kid (Bobb'e J. Thompson) with a good many life lessons in the process.
Underneath the laughs, Dan Fogelman's script proves a surprisingly resonant take on sibling rivalry, with plenty of heart-tugging sentiment. The laughs are there, including a hilarious bit where Fred attends a Siblings Anonymous meeting, with some surprising cameos (which we shan't spoil) among its frustrated members.
Vaughn and Giamatti give finely shaded, appealing performances, and Spacey has great fun with his dastardly villain role.
Though secular in thrust, the film is careful to avoid irreverence, and a well-timed underscoring of "Silent Night" at a crucial moment provides added resonance. Despite the emphasis on making all the toys, it is ultimately the act of giving -- and the importance of family at that time of year -- that is given most prominence.
Besides those themes, there are solid messages about self-esteem and the importance of forgiveness. David Dobkin's deft direction keeps the film well paced, though the film seems to end twice before coming to its actual conclusion.
There's nothing overtly objectionable for any age group (apart from the items below, the most egregious of which is the talk of Fred and Wanda "living together"), but the story is probably too sophisticated for very young viewers.
Time will tell whether the film earns classic status. But for now, despite its flaws, it's a warmhearted winner.
The film contains mild innuendo, an implied premarital living arrangement, a suggestive costume, and some crass humor and expressions. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-II -- adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG -- parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
These movies have been evaluated for artistic merit and moral suitability by the media reviewing division of Catholic News Service. The reviews include the CNS rating, the Motion Picture Association of America rating, and a brief synopsis of the movie.
The classifications are as follows:
A-I -- general patronage;
A-II -- adults and adolescents;
A-III -- adults;
L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. L replaces the previous classification, A-IV.
O -- morally offensive.
Note: Some movies previously were designated A-IV. Older films with this classification should be regarded as classified L.