Over the years, Vince Vaughn has mastered the jabber-talking Good-Time Guy, a character he's ridden, with slight physical variations, 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 dives into the kiddie pool, riding the waves of success from re-invented holiday films like Elf, and hoping parents will enjoy watching their favorite wiseass wreak havoc in Toyland.
Vaughn brings to the kiddie party the same thing he brings to the adult party: a six-foot-five attitude problem. Fred Claus begins with the birth of Nicholas Claus (Paul Giamatti) in a medieval Neverland. Dubbed a saint 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 same age as Vaughn (who plays Fred) and Giamatti. With his triple-decker eye bags and black skullcap, Vaughn makes a convincing sour-grapes sibling. He's a repo man in Chicago and a bad, birthday-forgetting boyfriend to Wanda (Rachel Weisz). He's also 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 finds Vaughn booking through a Toys "R" Us with a passel of angry Santas in tow. It's the first real indication that this is a kids' movie, and Vaughn works his long, ungainly limbs for broad kindergarten laughs. But he's funniest when using his mouth, particularly in exchanges with a stray kid who hangs out at his apartment. Fred bad-mouths Santa ("Don't drink the Kool-Aid") and implores the kid 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'll come up to the North Pole and help ease the Christmas rush.
Check that: In this almost completely secular movie, it's an "Xmas rush." But the one viable idea — that today's kids are greedier than Scrooge and the Grinch combined — is dropped as quickly as it's raised. (However brief, it's at least presented in an interesting and well-acted way: The increased demand at Santa's workshop caused by rising greed among children has resulted in a visit from a niggling "efficiency expert" named Clyde, who's played by Kevin Spacey.)
Dobkin peppers the film with stock "comic" sequences, notably the teach-a-square-to-groove scene stolen 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 its native waters.