The trailers for Fred Claus that showed in theaters last Christmas pitched the movie at adults — the director of Wedding Crashers re-teaming with Vince Vaughn to make a comedy about Santa Claus’ unjolly brother.

The newer trailers and TV spots have made it out to be a kid-friendly romp with harmless slapstick and a PG rating. Turns out, both approaches are fair assessments of what the actual film is all about. Maybe that’s why the result is so confused.
Vaughn plays Fred Claus, who starts out loving his younger brother “Nick” (Paul Giamatti) but ends up resenting him because their parents clearly favor their saintly son with the thriving toy business. Fred tries to make his own imprint by setting up an OTB in Chicago, but when he gets into a scrape with the law, he turns to his brother for money. Nick agrees to lend it to him only if Fred ends his self-imposed separation from the family and visits him with Mom and Dad at the North Pole.

At heart, this movie’s a grown-up drama about a guy’s corrosive jealousy of his more successful brother; making the successful brother into Santa Claus is a clever and fruitful comic idea. Santa is a tough character to make interesting, but Giamatti plays him with a regional manager’s humble air of dutifulness, and a guy whose misplaced shows of enthusiasm cover up his compulsive eating, marital friction with Mrs. Claus (Miranda Richardson), and the stress of dealing with an efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey) sent by the board who’s clearly looking to shut down Santa’s workshop. (Who’s on this board, by the way? What is Santa Claus’ business model? Screenwriter Dan Fogelman raises these questions. He doesn’t answer them.) There’s a funny interlude with Fred attending a support group for celebrity brothers and a terrifically tense Claus family dinner with five different characters visibly pursuing their own agendas. The later exchanges between unappreciated, misbehaving Fred and frazzled, responsible Nick are tinged with genuine bitterness, which leads this kiddie comedy into some unexpectedly dark places.

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You’d think this would save the movie from turning sugary like most holiday movies do, but it happens anyway, with Fred saving Christmas for the planet. Vaughn looks terribly uncomfortable with the soppy speeches that Fred is given, and the climactic scene with Santa appealing to the disappointed kid inside the efficiency expert is played way too straight. The whole setup of having a newcomer try to step in and do Santa’s job should be worth far more laughs than it gets here. The subplots with Fred’s girlfriend (Rachel Weisz) and an orphaned kid (Bobb’e J. Thompson) don’t add anything, and the special effects that create Santa’s elves aren’t convincing. Dobkin also directs the slapstick sequences like a hack, coming up with only one spark of invention in an early scene when Fred impersonates a Salvation Army Santa and gets chased down the street by an angry mob of Kris Kringles. Bits like these make Fred Claus easier to endure than Tim Allen sleepwalking through another installment of The Santa Clause. However, they can’t keep the movie from becoming the latest piece of holiday junk.

Fred Claus
Starring Vince Vaughn and Paul Giamatti. Directed by David Dobkin. Written by Dan Fogelman. Rated PG.