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By Pete Vonder Haar | November 11, 2007

Are we still required to describe Vince Vaughn as an “actor?” Is that really an accurate assessment when, as far as I can tell, all he does is play the same wise-assed, motormouthed, jerkoff-with-a-heart-of-gold in every movie? This isn’t a new phenomenon, but at least current phone-it-in actors like Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro have past glory to look upon, while Vaughn just seems to have found success repeatedly playing himself. And while it’s easy to fault the guy for being about as accomplished a thespian as Clyde the Orangutan, few of us would balk at pocketing $20 million to do the same.

So at least you know what to expect from “Fred Claus,” Vaughn’s latest effort and the first in this season’s annual salvo of holiday-themed movies. Vaughn plays the title character, the deadbeat brother of Nick (Paul Giamatti), more colloquially known as Santa Claus. When Fred gets in some legal trouble, he calls his little brother to bail him out. Nick agrees, but only if Fred comes to the North Pole to work off his debt.

You can imagine what comes next; no cliché or Christmas gag is left untapped as Fred begins work as a “naughty-nice” analyst in Santa’s Workshop and proceeds to shake up the Arctic establishment with his devil-may-care antics. Conflict is provided thanks to the appearance of a quality control bureaucrat – played by Kevin Spacey – who’s driven by his own tortured past to shut down Santa’s operation. He drives a rift between the brothers, endangering not only their relationship, but the future of Christmas itself.

“Fred Claus” is belligerently unfunny. Vaughn’s shtick is tired, and we already have enough goddamned Christmas movies to choke the Abominable Snowman. Beyond that comes another urgent question: how the hell did director David Dobkin convince so many allegedly excellent actors to appear in this? In addition to Spacey, there’s Academy Award-winner Kathy Bates (playing Fred and Nick’s mother), and Academy Award-winner Rachel Weisz (playing Fred’s Cockney meter maid girlfriend). Of the leads, only Giamatti and Vaughn are Oscar-less, and Giamatti probably won’t be lacking for much longer. Watching this kind of talent forced to muddle through this minefield of tired (midget fighting!) and embarrassing (impotent Santa!) jokes is almost enough to make you reject the baby Jesus altogether.

There’s even a subplot involving Santa’s head elf Willie’s (John Michael Higgins) attempts to romance co-worker Charlene (Elizabeth Banks), the only other non-elf at the North Pole. Charlene’s sole purpose appears to be providing some much-needed cleavage. Seeing Higgins – and many other normal-sized humans – poorly CG’ed into elf proportions made me wonder if little people in Hollywood have a union, and how if so, how lousy their lead negotiator must be.

The movie’s one redeeming quality is a single scene, featuring a support group for brothers of famous people. I won’t go into too much detail, except to say I never thought Frank Stallone had that much of a sense of humor.

“Fred Claus” isn’t going to vault to anyone’s upper echelon of Christmas movies…at least, it shouldn’t. If you’re that desperate for holiday entertainment, I recommend a triple-feature of “Die Hard,” “Silent Night, Deadly Night,” and “Invasion USA.” We need to respect the classics, after all.

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