Directed By: David Dobkin
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti, Kevin Spacey, John Michael Higgins, Miranda Richardson, Rachel Weisz, Kathy Bates, Trevor Peacock, Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges, Elizabeth Banks
Fred Claus tells the story of its title character (Vaughn) who is the lesser known older brother of Santa Claus (Giamatti). Fred is a fast talking repo man living in Chicago who clearly still has issues related to his more famous younger brother. These come to a head when Fred must hit his estranged brother up for bail money and a loan. Santa agrees to help if Fred will come to the North Pole and work with him for a week during the busy pre-Christmas season. The simmering sibling rivalry is exploited by efficiency expert Clyde Northcut (Spacey) in his efforts to shut down Santa's operation.
If the preceding synopsis makes the plot of the movie sound a bit dopey and facile, then I have done my job. The screenplay is little more than a transparently formulaic three-act structure from which are hung a bunch of opportunities for Vince Vaughn to work his familiar motor mouthed confidence man shtick. As such, the appeal of this movie will almost entirely depend on:
a)How much the viewer enjoys said shtick
b)How well the other actors play against it
I normally enjoy Vaughn's act and was somewhat amazed that the filmmakers were able to assemble a cast that included the likes of Paul Giamatti, Kathy Bates, Kevin Spacey, and Rachel Weisz. Giamatti and Weisz are particularly funny in their scenes with Vaughn. One gets the sense that Giamatti and Vaughn could improvise through any of their scenes for hours at a time without losing a beat. Weisz plays her long-suffering girlfriend character as the unstoppable force of "no" colliding with Vaughn's immovable object who will not take it for an answer. Any scene involving Vaughn and kids, or relatively childlike elves such as the one played by John Michael Higgins, is a hoot since he employs the same confidence man rap that he uses on the adult characters.
As a result, I found the film to be funny on a scene by scene basis, with cleverly conceived Claus Family intervention and "Siblings Anonymous" support group scenes being stand outs. In the end, though, the paint by numbers story does not allow the film to add up to a particularly memorable experience.
The film is presented on the top side of a double sided single layered DVD-10 "flipper" disc in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio transfer that is enhanced for widescreen displays. The flip side of the disc contains a 4:3 reformatted presentation that I did not watch for this review. The widescreen presentation suffers greatly from compression artifacts which are easy to spot in scenes with a moving camera or lots of motion and detail. The artifacts will move from noticeable to annoying as the size of a viewer's display increases. That is a shame because the transfer does not suffer from any other obvious deficiencies.
The English Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, encoded at a bitrate of 384kbps also suffers from being bit-starved at times. The 5.1 sound field is occasionally used creatively, with the mix adding a multi-dimensional element to whooshing snowballs and rocketing sleighs. The audio fidelity, though, is hit and miss. Most of the film sounds quite good, but there are occasional moments where things start sounding a bit rolled-off and compressed, usually when all of the channels are being engaged aggressively. Alternate language dubs are available via French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks
When the disc is first spun-up, the viewer is greeted with the following series of skippable promos. All are presented in 4:3 video, letterboxed as appropriate, with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound:
- Anti-Piracy PSA with scenes from Casablanca (1:00)
- Speed Racer DVD Trailer (:32)
- DVD Trailer for A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and the Peanuts Holiday Collection
- DVD Trailer for Jack Frost animated TV special with an added plug for How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Year Without a Santa Claus at the end (1:08)
Next up is a set of Deleted Scenes (25:36 w/"Play All"). The scenes are described as follows:
- Nick Goes Caroling, Fred Fishes Alone (1:21)
- Extended Santa Chase (1:45)
- Elf Fight #1 (:46)
- Fred and Willie in Bed (1:54)
- Candy Cane Montage (5:28)
- Guess Who's Not Coming to Dinner (4:00)
- Willie Brushes His Teeth(2:15)
- Elf Fight #2(1:49)
- Siblings Anonymous (2:06)
- DJ Donnie Alt.1(1:09)
- DJ Donnie Alt. 2(1:08)
- DJ Donnie Alt. 3(1:08)
- Ninja Snowballs Alt.(:40)
The double-sided single-layered DVD-10 is packaged in a standard Amaray case. The hard case is in turn inserted into a cardboard slipcover that reproduces identical cover art. An insert contains a code to unlock a reduced-price digital copy of the film that can be downloaded for Windows PCs and Playsforsure/Vista compatible portable devices from the CinemaNow web site. It does not support Macs, iPods, or iTunes.
While falling far short of status as a holiday perennial due to its formulaic plot, Fred Claus offers a fair number of laughs for fans interested in a family-friendly version of Vince Vaughn's familiar fast-talking wisenheimer persona. It is presented on DVD with a clearly bit-starved audio/video presentation. A reasonably informative director's commentary and an amusing set of deleted scenes are the only extras.