One scene will stay with me for the next six Christmases. Vince Vaughn
, playing Santa Claus' dishonest brother Fred, attends a support group for second-banana siblings. Frank Stallone is there, sheepishly admitting that his faith in brother Sylvester
faded with each new Rocky movie. Roger Clinton explains how difficult it was being "the First Brother." Fred tries to get a word in edgewise but ends up shouting at Stephen Baldwin (who is great, though we also would have accepted Daniel or Billy in the part).
Fred Claus needed two or three more thinking-outside-the-box scenes like this to help it become more than what it actually is: a fragile premise stuffed with hollow Christmas jokes that would collapse in a holiday heap if not for Vaughn's demonstrated charms. Article continues below
The disgruntled older brother of jolly old St. Nick (played with warmth and patience by Paul Giamatti
) isn't a character so much as the Vaughn persona we've seen in Wedding Crashers, The Break-Up, Old School, and Swingers. Dan Fogelman's script imagines an excuse to get Fred to the North Pole -- he needs $50,000 to open a bar, but Santa refuses the loan unless Fred works a few shifts in the family toy factory. Once in the winter wonderland, Fred avoids his judgmental mother (Kathy Bates
), coaches an elf (John Michael Higgins
) on how to woo one of Santa's beautiful helpers (Elizabeth Banks
), and makes life difficult for an efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey
) who is threatening to shut Santa's operation down.
Fred falters because director David Dobkin
never definitively chooses between making a kid-friendly money maker or an edgy comedy aimed at our inner teenage boy. The PG rating suggests the former, with tall Vaughn looming over pint-sized co-stars and sleeping in undersized beds (too bad his buddy, Jon Favreau, already milked similar visuals with Will Ferrell
in the superior Elf). But the concept of sibling rivalry, the outsourcing of elfin labor, and the need for an intervention will fly over the heads of young ones like Santa's sleigh above snow-covered rooftops on Christmas Eve. Ho, ho, oh well. Maybe next time.