Fred Claus repeats the joke relied upon by almost every post-Reagan era Christmas movie: The North Pole is a corporation; Santa is a frustrated executive concerned with production efficiency and streamlined delivery systems. The problem with this premise is, of course, if Santa gives away presents, then where are the revenue streams to further production? In Fred Claus, Kevin Spacey is an efficiency expert sent to oversee Santa’s observations—but we’re never told who sent him?
Fred Claus seems to suggest something sinister: Executives from Big Toys fund SantaCorp for market research and product introduction, then write off the losses. “Easter and bunnies and eggs…what’s the synergy?” Spacey asks? A good point, and in the first act, Fred Claus seems to want to ask more. Santa is presented as a bored middle manager; his ne’er do well brother Fred is the family hustler. Vince Vaughn’s Fred Claus is a repo-man who delivers standard Vaughn motormouth schtick to a teenager that, in the long run, it’s a good thing he’s taking her new plasma tv. He’s looking for a leg-up on money-making scams while his brother suffers over quarterly reports. Is the only difference between an executive and a hustler the legitimacy of a suit?
We never find out. After setting up this premise in the first half hour, it’s onto the hijinks. Vaughn busts Ludacris’ chops for playing lame Christmas music in the shop; he turns the assembly line into a dance party for elves who act a little too much like the happy slaves from a Hays Code antebellum film.
At this point, Vaughn gamely throws everything he’s got at the movie, all his fratty fast talk (“I like where your head’s at!”) and ahead-of-the-game confrontation (“I don’t like where you’re taking me, and you don’t have enough game to get me there.”). To this point, if you must see Fred Claus, watch for Paul Giamatti’s subtle, brilliant performance. Vaughn doesn’t play Fred as Santa’s lesser brother; Giamatti plays Santa as a less cocksure version of Fred. Giamatti mimics Vaughn’s motormouth speech patterns at a lower volume, and cuts through conversational subtext just like all Vaughn’s wise-ass characters. Giamatti layers his Santa with irony: “Ho Ho Ho!” is a corporate catchphrase, in the same vein as a Vaughn “I’m feelin’ you!” Santa, it turns out, is a hustler too: If every kid deserves a toy for Christmas, no matter what the naughty list says, then he’s guaranteed a profitable market share.