"Fred Claus" sells you something you didn't know you wanted: a Vince Vaughn Christmas movie. Vaughn is not the hook. Neither is the holiday. The script, by Dan Fogelman, is smarter than that. It hitches the old homecoming story to a tale about the corporatization of Christmas. The movie is indeed about Santa's shady estranged brother, Fred, whom Vaughn plays equidistantly between lovable and loutish. But there are crises. Santa (Paul Giamatti) makes Fred come back to the North Pole from Chicago to earn $50,000 for a business venture by toiling in the workshop.
He arrives at the same time as an efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey, looking pickled) who flies in to maximize toy production. Demand for toys per letter has skyrocketed, and the elves are having a dickens of a time keeping apace. The board - there's a board - even threatens to outsource work to . . . the South Pole. Needless to say, Santa is sick with stress, and Fred initially doesn't help. He encourages workshop-wide dance parties that halt efficiency and, in a rage, stamps every wish-list letter "nice," which, apparently, is very naughty.
The movie feels like some TV drama's premise given generous splashes of wit, color, and Oscar-winners. Kathy Bates plays Mama Claus, and Rachel Weisz, who's never been more accessible, plays
But wait: Before tears, there are laughs. The movie comes up with a nifty support group called Siblings Anonymous, and one of the sustained visual jokes in "Fred Claus" is that Vaughn is a giant among the elves. The inspired production design keeps Fred outside any physical comfort zone. The bunk bed he shares with Willie (John Michael Higgins), the chief elf, is so small a third of him spills over the edge. Clever special effects have made believable elves of actors like Higgins and Ludacris, who plays the workshop DJ. And watching this great big man - Vaughn is 6 feet, 5 inches - manhandling a mini-Ludacris is funny.
But the movie showcases the proportional differences in unexpectedly sweet ways. Willie is in love with Charlene, Santa's personal assistant, a bosomy human-size lass played by the irresistibly kittenish Elizabeth Banks. Willie has no idea how to get her to notice him, so Fred teaches the little guy to dance, encouraging the reluctant Willie to hold him even though he comes up to about Fred's belt. You probably won't see a more genuine display of friendship in a movie for the rest of the year.
Of course, at this point you're reading words like "sweet" and "kittenish" and "friendship" and probably wondering why you're not seeing "vulgar," "lewd," and "covered my ears." It's true that "Fred Claus" has been directed by David Dobkin, the man who also made the exuberant "Wedding Crashers." It's also true that "you can take the kids" and "Vince Vaughn" have rarely appeared in the same sentence, but the movie is not a work of cynicism. This is no "Bad Santa." And it's warm without feeling ersatz. I was prepared for Giamatti, for instance, to make due with Santa duty by condescending to the part and turning the character into an unhappy clown. But while the little ones might lean over and ask, "Is Saint Nick from Brooklyn?" I'm certain they won't have seen a more emotionally complex Santa Claus this side of "Miracle on 34th Street."
Meanwhile, Vaughn's crude stylings are mercifully intact. More than ever he resembles a giant, hungover, vaguely bloated Tony Curtis, and he still talks with an auctioneer's velocity. But his naughtiness has never seemed so approachably nice. The movie includes a montage of Vaughn scarfing down the thank-you cookies expectant gift-getters leave for Santa. Somebody puts out a flan, and the sight of him gobbling that, too, is probably the nicest gift anybody will give me this Christmas.