Fred Claus

One scene . . .

My favorite Christmas film is Billy Bob Thornton's Bad Santa, whose foul mouthed, child endangering store man-in-red is my cup of iconoclasm. Vince Vaughan's Fred Claus, the bad-boy older brother of Nick (Paul Giamatti), is nowhere near as bad as Thornton's in a tepid tale of brotherly love saved only by one scene as potentially funny as any other this year. I expected more from David Dobkin, director or of Wedding Crashers.

Hidden in the glossy, gingerbread CGI'd North Pole is a story of sibling rivalry between Santa and Fred, who has to visit his always-beloved-by-mom bro to get money to start another get-rich-quick scheme. How it all resolves is a given, but along the way is a scene at Siblings Anonymous that could have been a classic of pop-referential, Freudian psychological fun staged as therapy group of not-famous brothers in a circle out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

When Roger Clinton, Frank Stallone, and Stephen Baldwin whine about their famous brothers, there is triple fun: They resemble the famous ones; they confess as they might have in a real therapy group; and they do illuminate the complex nature of Fred's dealing with his better known and nicer brother. The drive-by therapy makes Fred a kinder, gentler brother and us a little bit more understanding about the fallout from celebrity.

But the film, Fred Claus, is inferior comedy, garnering a few laughs mostly from slapstick that too frequently involves little people. It's a Christmas joy to see Charlene's (Elizabeth Banks) cleavage, a naughty but nice touch in an otherwise sexless farce (Miranda Richardson as Mrs. Claus! Has time gone by that fast or has Miranda fallen that far?). It's depressing to see Kevin Spacey play the naughty villain, Clyde, because Spacey looks as if he'd rather be belting out the Bard back in Britain, or perhaps reprising his finely wrought Lex Luthor.

Merry Christmas. I miss you, Bad Santa.