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Vince Vaughn Spins Wheels in Calculated Christmastime Vehicle 'Fred Claus'

From left: Paul Giamatti and Vince Vaughn star in Fred Claus, David Dobkin's yuletide yawner.

The careers of Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn have seemed linked (albeit tenuously, of late) since starring together in Swingers, Doug Liman's 1996 comedy about wannabe actors braving the L.A. social scene. Since then, the pair has collaborated on Made (2001), the Favreau-directed farce about ex-boxers learning the ropes of organized crime, and The Break-Up (2006), in which Vaughn played a freshly dumped man-child and Favreau a sage bartender.

So after Favreau directed Elf, a worthy holiday offering about a grown man raised by Santa’s little helpers, it was perhaps only a matter for time before Vaughn returned serve as Fred Claus, in which a cynical Chicagoan, who happens to be St. Nick’s estranged older brother, is whisked away to the North Pole for a refresher course in holiday spirit.

It’s a premise with potential, but director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers) approaches it clumsily, failing to strike a comfortable balance between comedy and mawkish sentimentality. Rather than building up an interesting world for Vaughn's cynical motormouth to knock down, he merely asks his star to fall back on familiar mannerisms, as if his well-established personality were big enough to wring laughs out of a vacuum.

Sometimes, it is. Fred is slick and brazenly disingenuous, a con man who has been living in his brother’s ever-expanding shadow for more than 1,500 years. (More on this later.) His dream, to build a gaming room across the street from the Windy City stock exchange, requires a $50,000 investment. When his latest get-rich-quick scheme lands him in jail, he dials Santa (Paul Giamatti) for bail and a loan.

Given his jolly disposition, Santa is hard-pressed to say no – altruism is his specialty – so the brothers strike a deal: Fred will work for the money at Santa’s compound, helping his elves prepare for their most daunting Christmas ever. Their workshop, normally a bastion of yuletide cheer, has fallen under the watchful eye of a Grinch-like efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey) bent on shutting down the holiday for good.

Why? Who knows? For that matter, if Fred's been wandering the earth for more than a millennium, why does he seem so much like a product of the modern-day Windy City? Fred rarely alludes to his past, which might have explained his Scrooge-like bitterness. But what more can be expected from a movie that requires Santa’s elves to attack the towering Vaughn, Lilliputian-style, not once but twice? Ho, ho, ho, indeed.

There are funny moments, including Fred’s visit to Siblings Anonymous, where we witness laughable testimonials from the likes of fraternal lesser lights Frank Stallone, Roger Clinton and Stephen Baldwin. And the cast, including supporting players Kathy Bates, Miranda Richardson and Rachel Weisz, is considerably stronger than the material, which aims for obvious laughs before turning on the calculated Christmastime charm, to no redeeming effect.