Vince Vaughn charms the grinchiest soul in this overbaked Christmas pudding.
The wrapping of a Christmas gift is important, but it's ultimately what's beneath the paper that counts. The same can be said about "Fred Claus," a comedy that is predictable, clichéd and full of riffs borrowed from other movies. But once you work your way through all of that, it's also surprisingly touching.
The premise is unique, no small feat in itself in light of the countless Christmas movies that have preceded it. It's about a sibling rivalry between the world-famous Santa and his underachieving, perpetually frustrated older brother Fred.
(Much less effective is a subplot about Santa's workshop outsourcing the production of toys. It's an amusing concept, but never makes it beyond the one-joke stage.)
The movie reunites Vince Vaughn with David Dobkin, the director of his blockbuster "Wedding Crashers." Fred (Vaughn) needs $50,000 for his newest get-rich-quick scheme. He hits up his brother for a loan, but Santa (Paul Giamatti) has a string attached to the deal: Preparation for Christmas Eve is behind schedule, so Fred has to go to the North Pole and help Santa get ready for his all-important annual mission.
It's Fred's first trip there, which means he experiences several culture shocks highly remindful of the gags in "The Santa Clause" movies. He also encounters some size problems that will elicit flashbacks to "Elf."
But just when we're convinced that the movie is the cinematic equivalent of regifting, it turns its focus to the dysfunction in the Claus family, caused in no small part by the overt favoritism demonstrated by Mama Claus (Kathy Bates). It's no wonder that poor Fred has self-confidence issues.
Despite a PG rating, parents of younger children should be warned that it's not always politically correct, especially when Fred and Santa get locked up in a knock-down, drag-out brawl. It's funny stuff, but seeing Santa grab a guy in a headlock probably doesn't fit some folks' image of St. Nick.
Vaughn exudes his typical on-the-edge-of-being-out-of-control energy, and the soft-spoken Giamatti is spot-on as Santa. Kevin Spacey is wasted in a one-note role as an efficiency expert out to cut the workshop's dead wood. But Frank Stallone, Roger Clinton and Stephen Baldwin deserve the Good Sports of the Year award for showing up in a scene involving a famous-sibling support group. The fact that they're funny, too, is an unexpected bonus.
The ending is unabashedly corny, but it's also effective, especially at a time of year when family dynamics can turn nasty. That attitude makes "Fred Claus" a pleasant little seasonal gift.