David Dobkins' tone-deaf holiday fable about what a drag it is being Santa's lesser brother seems designed to showcase a (slightly) kinder and (marginally) gentler Vince Vaughn. But the story vacillates between broad, kid-friendly gags and a series of oddly sour riffs on the theme of adult sibling rivalry.
Long ago, a poor but happy peasant couple (Kathy Bates, Trevor Peacock) lived in a snug, fairy-tale cabin in the woods with their son, Fred, and they were delighted at the birth of his younger brother. Young Fred Claus wanted to love plump, jolly Nicholas, who entered the world cooing "Ho… ho… ho," but as the boys grew, the congenitally saintly Nick couldn't help but upstage ordinary Fred. By the time Nicholas became Santa Claus (Paul Giamatti), frustrated Fred's (Vince Vaughn) naturally generous temperament had curdled into a nasty mix of resentment and spite. Hundreds of years later — apparently Santa's whole family is immortal — Nick and his (presumably also immortal) wife Annette (Miranda Richardson) are running a Christmas empire from the North Pole. Fred is a curmudgeonly Chicago repo man, estranged from his family and about to lose his patient girlfriend, Wanda (Rachel Weisz), to his perennial thoughtlessness. In desperate need of a loan, Fred hits up his brother, who agrees on the condition that Fred spend a few days at the North Pole. Fred's arrival coincides with that of efficiency expert Clyde (Kevin Spacey), whom the North Pole's board of directors (huh?) has dispatched to make sure Santa's toy shop is being run like a business, not some philanthropic enterprise. By the time perennial troublemaker Fred is done, Santa is in danger of being shut down forever.
Inspired by an 8-year-old's innocent question about Santa's family, producer Jesse Nelson and screenwriter Dan Fogelman cooked up a convoluted tale about family values and the true meaning of Christmas, which Fred sums up as "Every child deserves a toy." This mentality culminates in the heart-warming montage of kids all over the world tearing into their Christmas presents like Tasmanian devils to the incongruous strains of "Silent Night," and is presumably why the magical North Pole looks like a vulgar department-store Christmas display. The film delivers a handful of laughs, notably Fred's pursuit by an ever-growing mob of Salvation Army Santas and the siblings' anonymous meeting featuring Roger Clinton, Stephen Baldwin and Frank Stallone. But of the subplot in which Fred advises besotted head-elf Willie (John Michael Higgins) about wooing Santa's not-so-little helper (Elizabeth Banks), a leggy blonde whose micro-mini attire must afford the Pole's height-challenged majority quite a view of her assets, the less said the better. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh