Written by: Jaime Kawamoto, special to CC2K
Hollywood and Santa have a long history, both naughty and nice. From the classics that evoke tears to the made-for-TV drivel where Jenny McCarthy drives the sleigh, Santa is an iconic figure. Now imagine you were this saint’s older, less wise brother. When you were kids your parents doted on Nick and criticized your every move. You might grow up to be a little selfish. Prickly maybe. Perhaps even a bitter and lonely man. You might even grow up to be Fred Claus. This movie is a wry take on the Christmas story. Santa’s older brother Fred lives in New York. He has an astringent meter maid girlfriend. He works as a repo man – the exact opposite job of his brother. When Fred’s boss comes to his apartment looking for him, he discovers his employee has been stealing from the homes he’s repo-ing. Fred loses his job and has to pay his boss $25,000 by Christmas, which is only a couple of weeks away. What kind of job can you get close to the holidays? Why, Salvation Army Santa of course! Fred ends up in jail (you can’t put a guy like this near charitable funds). Then his girlfriend dumps him when he ignores her birthday. He has only one person to turn to: his brother Nick.
They strike a deal. In exchange for the money, Fred will go to the North Pole and run the naughty or nice list. Our reluctant anti-hero shakes things up in Santa’s workshop but couldn’t have picked a worse time to do it. An efficiency expert is trying to shut the place down and replace all the elves with robots. He uses Fred’s shenanigans to get very close to his goal. One family intervention and a change of heart later, everything turns out the way it should in a Christmas movie.
This script was clearly written for Vince Vaughn, who is playing Fred. In fact, it seems writer Dan Fogelman got his dream cast: Paul Giamatti as Santa; Miranda Richardson as Mrs. Claus; Kathy Bates as the boys’ overbearing mother; Rachel Weisz as Fred’s girlfriend; Kevin Spacey as the efficiency expert. With this many Oscar types around, expectations are high. The script does not disappoint. A sign of good writing is when you know where the story will end up but want to take the journey anyway. Fred Claus had me hooked by the third page, even with the certainty that a studio Christmas pic will end up warm and fuzzy.
The very first problem I had was I’ve never understood why Santa is immortal yet elderly. How was his “forever” age determined? Why are his family also immortal and age appropriate for him? Never fear, Dan Fogelman is here! He addresses these questions. At every turn the writer justifies the myths and inconsistencies of the Santa legend. This grounds the script so that Frosty the Snowman as North Pole bartender doesn’t seem far fetched. Plus, it fits nicely with the cynical tone of Fred’s character. He wouldn’t buy this crap so why should we?
Dialogue is one of Fogelman’s strong suits. Each character has its own voice. There are not a lot of extraneous jokes or exposition. The plot is tight. It moves along nicely, with an excellent use of montages (which I normally abhor!). The writer knows this is a Hollywood confection and doesn’t pretend otherwise. He has the bones of a family drama that he fleshes out with the fun of a holiday comedy.
Setting is key in creating the comedy. The North Pole is delightful and unique. There is a traditional family diner. Frosty’s bar serves only egg nog (the alcoholic variety). The local radio station counts down the top 100 songs, all of which are the same old Christmas carols, until Fred introduces the dj to Eminem. This is not the generic Santaville we are so often subjected to in Christmas movies. This is a living, breathing town.
The heart of the film is the relationship between the two brothers. Fred and Nick are very well drawn characters. Nick is a stress eater who worries about everything. He tries so hard to please everyone he never pleases himself. Fred hides behind his bad acts because he is afraid of failure. He can never measure up to his actual saint of a brother so he doesn’t even try. They are carefully crafted beings, as are the efficiency expert Clyde and the head elf Willy. Clyde is brimming with unfulfilled desires. Willy has a tough exterior that is hiding his love for the only human employee at the Pole (Santa’s little helper). Even Mr. Claus, the boys’ father, has a great character reveal at the end. Ladies, I think you see where I’m going with this.
It is a shame that so often the female characters get left out in the cold. Mrs. Claus replaces her husband’s cookie stash with Zone bars. She insists on tough love for Fred. She can’t get along with her mother-in-law. Speaking of whom, mother Claus is just as one dimensional. She coddles Nick and nags Fred. She never lets her husband have an opinion. Her character arc is revealing she actually loves Fred – duh! She’s his mother! Then there’s Wanda, the girlfriend. She talks tough but all she wants is Fred to show his affection. Her role is so underwritten I’m surprised they got an Oscar winner to play her! The other female character is Willy’s love interest, Santa’s assistant. The character could have been interesting. She is the only non-elf employed by the Claus’. She lives in a world of miniatures. Yet she seems oblivious to everything except Santa’s schedule. It is so disappointing because Fogelman is very capable of writing men.
As a feminist and (aspiring) screenwriter, I have to take this opportunity to say HOLLYWOOD NEEDS MORE WOMEN!!! We can write. We can direct. We can produce. The story for this film is partially credited to Jessie Nelson. I wonder how different the female characters would have come out had she taken a pass at writing them. Imagine if men and women worked together to give both sides of the story. Sorry, what was I thinking! Equality is not a concept that fits into mainstream filmmaking. But I digress.
Even though I do have my issues with the script I am still eager to see the movie. I laughed out loud, real belly laughs, while reading Fred Claus. That doesn’t happen too often. Anything this fresh and fun deserves a second chance. In fact, second chances are what the script is all about.
TOP TEN CHRISTMAS MOVIES
1. Bad Santa – Lauren Graham doing Santa in the parking lot + a talking walnut +Billy Bob = Instant classic.
2. One Magic Christmas – It is the saddest, most uplifting Christmas story ever. A must watch.
3. Elf – Don’t watch it if you don’t think Will Ferrell is funny. Go back to your King of Queens reruns.
4. It’s a Wonderful Life – It is one of the best films ever made. Frank Capra is a genius.
5. A Charlie Brown Christmas – That poor, decrepit little tree brings tears to my eyes every time.
6. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever – Good clean fun.
7. Die Hard – On my top ten favorite movie list. Good anytime of the year.
8. White Christmas – This is the one you watch with our family and share Christmas memories over egg nog.
9. The Ref – Hilarious. Freakin’ hilarious.
10. The Family Man – I can’t resist Nicolas Cage. Or Don Cheadle. Sue me.