Banking on the career choices of Vince Vaughn garners increasingly erratic returns, which is ironic, given that he has finally settled on (or surrendered to) a consistent on-screen persona: his own bad self. Uneasy from the beginning, Vaughn avoided the superstardom that seemed within reach after Swingers by trying on the action hero, indie pinup, dark-drama dude, leading man, slapstick punter and surprisingly competent supporting player. With 2003's Old School, Vaughn resurrected the jive- and jabber-talking good-time guy, which, with slight physical variations (heedless of his matinee idol looks, he shed them, possibly along with a flatbed full of empties), he has ridden to big-budget comedy success.
Vaughn's leading role in Fred Claus, a PG holiday movie tailored for the SUV set, is something of a departure: Re-teaming with Wedding Crashers director David Dobkin, Vaughn delves into the preteen demo, riding the success of reinvented holiday films like Elf and hoping that parents will enjoy the added value of seeing their favorite wiseass wreaking havoc in Toyland.
Lacking the effortless, absurdist je ne say what of fellow crank Bill Murray (who tried his hand at Christmas fare with Scrooged), the demonic, physical comedy of Ben Stiller (amassing kid cred with Night at the Museum) and the game, freestyling innocence of Will Ferrell (Elf), Vaughn brings to the kiddie party the same thing he brings to the adult party: a six-foot-five attitude problem. Whether a giant man with an extensive flannel collection and a big mouth will have crossover (or -under) appeal is anyone's guess.
Fred Claus begins with the birth of Nicholas Claus in a medieval Neverland where everything is subject to warm and crackly voice-over narration. Dubbed a saint for his sweetness by his mother (Kathy Bates), baby Nicholas is the immediate bane of his older brother Fred's existence. Centuries go by, but due to a fairy-tale loophole, the Claus brothers seem to stay the age of Vaughn (as Fred) and Paul Giamatti (as Nicholas, AKA Santa, in a sweetly observed performance). With his triple-decker eye bags and black skullcap, Vaughn makes a convincing no-good, sour-grapes sibling. Fred's a repo man in Chicago. He's also a bad, birthday-forgetting boyfriend to Wanda (Rachel Weisz). And a crook: In scheming to raise enough money to buy a restaurant, he bilks some Salvation Army Santas and winds up in the slammer.
That sequence, which finds Vaughn booking through a Toys 'R' Us with a passel of angry Santas in tow, is the first real indication that this is a children's movie, and Vaughn works his long, ungainly limbs for broad kindergarten laughs. He's funniest, of course, when using only his mouth, particularly in exchanges with a stray kid who hangs out at his apartment: Fred badmouths Santa ("Don't drink the Kool-Aid." "But I like Kool-Aid") and implores the youth to look out only for himself. Thankfully, Fred's famous little brother has a different view, and offers to give Fred the seed money he needs if he will come up to the North Pole and help out with the Christmas rush.
Or make that Xmas rush, for this is an almost completely secular film whose one viable idea (about the greed inherent in today's children asking for fifteen toys instead of one) is dropped as quickly as it is raised. Santa's workshop is having a hard time keeping up with the increased demand, and this has occasioned a visit from a niggling "efficiency expert" named Clyde (Kevin Spacey) with sibling issues of his own; Spacey is actually scarier here than he was as Lex Luthor, and there's a nice bit of Superman business, to boot. Elizabeth Banks plays Santa's Little Helper, her zany charge annoyingly corked in favor of the eye-candy quotient, and Fred finds an ally for his save-the-day duties in an elf named Willy (Break-Up co-star John Michael Higgins, CGI de-enhanced).
Dobkin peppers the film with stock "comic" sequences (notably the teach-a-square-to-groove scene from Hitch and the dance montage from his own Crashers), draining what little novelty there is in placing the Vaughn persona so far out of water. The exceptional cast feels like an embarrassment of riches for a script this thin and this beholden to family-fare protocol. As it is, a generally innocuous bit of holiday shlock gets junked up with a mushy-minded moral (there are no naughty kids, apparently), slick sentimentality and an overreaching finale in which Dobkin finally ditches the jingle-bell jukebox to misuse the power of a bona fide hymn ("Silent Night," sung by über-Catholic Sinéad O'Connor, no less). He plays it over a touching montage about the true meaning of Xmas: kids tearing presents open with their teeth.
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