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‘Fred Claus’ is the season’s first lump of coal

The comedy from director David Dobkin veers awkwardly from shrill, slapsticky physical humor to diabolical meanness  to reheated, snuggly sentiments about the importance of love and family.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Vince Vaughn plays the same guy he always plays — the smart-alecky, fast-talking, seemingly insincere hustler who ultimately turns out to be a lovable lug beneath the bravado — in “Fred Claus.” Only this time he does it surrounded by elves and toys with jaunty Christmas music blaring in the background.

Clearly, he can do more. He proved it earlier this year in “Into the Wild.” But here he’s once again coasting on his well-worn persona, surrounded by esteemed, award-winning actors who are vastly overqualified and mostly look bored. (It’s staggering when you look at the caliber of the cast. Kathy Bates has an Oscar. So does Rachel Weisz. Heck, Kevin Spacey has two. Paul Giamatti’s been nominated; so has Miranda Richardson, twice.)

The comedy from director David Dobkin (who also directed Vaughn in “Wedding Crashers”) veers awkwardly from shrill, slapsticky physical humor to diabolical meanness (courtesy of Spacey as an efficiency expert) to reheated, snuggly sentiments about the importance of love and family.

And the thing is, the central nugget of an idea behind the movie isn’t bad.

Vaughn stars as the bitter Fred Claus, who’s spent a lifetime seething in the shadow of his loving, generous younger brother, Nicholas (Giamatti), better known as Santa. Mom (Bates) always liked Nick better. But in a peculiar plot point from screenwriter Dan Fogelman (with Jessie Nelson getting a story-by credit) everyone related to Nick froze in time when he gained his sainthood. This detail is mentioned in passing at the beginning and never addressed again.

Fred, however, is thoroughly contemporary. He’s a repo man who’s not above squabbling with little girls over their personal belongings. Early on, he pretends to be a Salvation Army volunteer just to pilfer dollar bills from the kindhearted holiday shoppers wandering Chicago’s streets. (He then gets chased down Michigan Avenue by a dozen angry Santas and ends up being arrested, a foreshadowing of further wacky antics to come.)

Desperate for cash to get out of jail and start his own gambling venture — a pursuit that you know he’ll abandon by the film’s end — Fred agrees to schlep to the North Pole and earn the money by assisting his brother and his mini-minions as they prepare for Christmas. Fred’s girlfriend, Wanda (Weisz, weirdly cast as a meter maid), is tired of his selfishness and flakiness and certainly isn’t about to help.

So off he goes, in a sleigh driven by Santa’s head elf, Willie (John Michael Higgins) — who, like Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as the North Pole’s DJ elf, is jarringly rendered as a little person using a process known as “digital head replacement.” Basically this entails putting the actor’s head on the body of another actor using a blue screen. It looks so obviously fake, though, it’s like something out of the Wayans brothers’ comedy “Little Man.”

Fred arrives at the shiny, shopping mall-style North Pole — much to the dismay of Nick’s wife, Annette (Richardson), who thinks he’s good for nothing — and immediately stirs things up just as Spacey’s stern, bespectacled character, Clyde Northcutt, shows up to evaluate the operation’s productivity with an eye to shutting the place down. Fred’s shenanigans include trying to get the DJ to play a song other than the constant loop of “Here Comes Santa Claus”: Yes, Elvis really gives the elves an opportunity to get their groove on.

He also subverts the whole naughty-nice delineation by declaring that there are no bad kids. This forces Vaughn to utter the line, “Every kid deserves a present on Christmas.” Such blatant earnestness fits him about as well as the red, fuzzy Santa hat stuffed onto his head.