It doesn't pay for parents to encourage close examination of the Santa Claus myth, lest they prompt their kids to start asking practical questions about his process. There's no magic in looking inside the sausage factory, yet holiday movies persist in heading to the North Pole, which is probably as demystifying for children as the stench of hard liquor on a mall Santa's breath. Owing much to the smug storybook deconstruction of movies like Shrek, the overstuffed comedy Fred Claus does its best to suck the mystery and fun out of Christmas, from making Santa an all-too-human guy with family issues and back problems to turning the North Pole into something like a cheerily efficient Federal Express depot. Some of its ideas are clever, others beg to be elided, but colliding noisily under Joel Silver, the maestro of overproduction, they're altogether too much.
Re-teaming with Wedding Crashers director David Dobkin, Vince Vaughn plays the eponymous character, Santa's crankier and considerably less charitable older brother, while doing all the riffing his PG straitjacket will allow. Doomed to live under his sibling's long shadow, Vaughn works as a repo man in Chicago, where he treats girlfriend Rachel Weisz shabbily while trying to scrape together the money for an off-track betting establishment. Always eager to get back in the good graces of his estranged brother, Santa (Paul Giamatti) agrees to front the money for Vaughn's operation if he comes to work at the North Pole. This year, evil efficiency expert Kevin Spacey is threatening to pull the plug on Santa's operation if the presents don't get out on time, and Vaughn winds up with the critical work of determining who's naughty and who's nice.
Leave it to Giamatti to bring gravitas to the fat guy in the red suit; he's naturally the straight man in the sibling duo, but whenever Fred Claus goes for the heartstrings, he's the only one capable of plucking in tune. Vaughn also does well in squeezing some funny improvisation into tight kid-friendly parameters, especially considering what Robin Williams might have done in his place. A better movie would have focused more intently on their relationship, but this one never meets a subplot it doesn't like: There's the little orphan boy who climbs through Vaughn's stoop window, a possible romance between head elf John Michael Higgins and hot accountant Elizabeth Banks, who's twice his size, Weisz as the improbably beautiful (and even more improbably patient) meter maid, and Spacey as a bean-counting Grinch out to steal Christmas under questionable authority. Toss it into a blender, add a cup of sugar, and it's a holiday headache for the whole family.