There have been at least 60 movies made about Santa Claus. One of them is a Hollywood classic, and if you don’t know its title off the bat, allow me to commend you for achieving an Amish-like purity when it comes to the corruptions of popular culture. Not much can be said in defense of the 59 other Santa Claus movies besides Miracle on 34th Street.
There is no Hollywood subgenre that has produced quite so much vapid, shallow, silly, embarrassing, treacly and bizarre fare. I can say this without qualification because, to my shame, in the course of a sadly misbegotten life, I’ve seen almost every one. Put the word “Claus” in the title, or in the TV Guide plot description, and I have found myself compelled to watch it.
Perhaps this was always nothing more than an exercise in masochism, since, inevitably, teeth ache from the cavity-inducing set design of cute Mittel-European huts at the North Pole, and the scene in which every Mrs. Claus complains that Santa works too hard and needs to lose some weight provokes nothing but nausea. And as for reindeer, red-nosed or otherwise, there can be no whisper of a defense.
Still, my admittedly myopic and astigmatic eyes have witnessed these horrors again and again, doubtless due to an atavistic childhood hunger to participate vicariously in Christmas even though my own non-Christian faith and tradition preclude it. For what, after all, is a Santa-centric Christmas movie but a Yuletide tale that entirely omits the birth of Christ (save, of course, for the brilliant and incredibly foul-mouthed Jesus vs. Santa cartoon from which sprang the television series South Park, which is, it must be said, not safe for work)?
Now Hollywood has sprung another Yule trap on me and millions of other unsuspecting Americans in the form of a new, colossally budgeted movie called Fred Claus, which wants both to be a gentle parody of Santa movies and traffick unironically in every North Pole movie cliché. The movie is based in a mildly funny notion that Santa Claus’s older brother might be working as a repo man in Chicago with the ambition of opening an off-track betting parlor. This notion can, at best, support a three-minute sketch, however. The same can be said of its satirical extension of a childhood sibling rivalry into an agonized immortal eternity.
Fred Claus is dreadful — and yet. At its climax, Santa’s ne’er-do-well brother pulls up to a Chicago foundling home in the family sleigh, drops down a chimney, and delivers a Jack Russell puppy to a cute orphan. And, to my great disay, I felt tears sting my eyes. It happened again, five minutes later, when a deeply emotional Santa Claus (Paul Giamatti) tells his ne’er-do-well older sibling (Vince Vaughan) that “you’re the best big brother in the whole world.”
“Funny how potent cheap music is,” says a character in Noel Coward’s Private Lives. Coward didn’t know the half of it.