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A real present Fast-talking hustler helps his brother save family business

When it comes to Christmas movies, there are a few that meet most every basic need.

For the "who will deliver the presents?" story, there's "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"; for the non-Rockwell family holiday story, there's "A Christmas Story"; for the "Christmas restores hope even in the most desperate heart" story, there's "It's a Wonderful Life."

Add "A Charlie Brown Christmas," "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" and some "A Christmas Carol" variations, and really, there is little need for any others.

Most others are less satisfactory iterations of these classics, and there are so many of them and they are so predictable, slapsticky and dumb that they give me, er, Claus-trophobia.

So when I saw the trailer for "Fred Claus," what could I say but "Oy"?

But guess what? Vince Vaughn's 6-foot-5 Christmas crasher stands head and shoulders over "Elf," "Bad Santa" and the Kranks.

The premise of "Fred Claus" is familiar - a mashup of plots past, present and future: Christmas is in peril; someone must deliver the presents; someone is jaded about all the fa-la-la-la-la; Christmas isn't joyful for everyone; not everyone "fits" into the Santa role.

But director David Dobkin and screenwriter Dan Fogelman don't attempt to squeeze jokes out of storylines as stale as Aunt Edna's fruitcake. Rather, they go someplace fresher and flakier, and not so traditional and sickly sweet. They don't just bring the story into contemporary times by giving characters plasma TVs and suburban split levels with inflatable lawn ornaments. They reimagine them as people who have grown up in the '70s, '80s and '90s - and who have the empty Prozac bottles to prove it.

Vaughn's Fred is the slacker who could never live up to his sainted brother, Nick, in the eyes of his mother (played by Katie Bates and her wry, crooked eyebrow). Instead of giving, he takes - in his job as a repo man and in a temporary gig stealing donations from sidewalk Santas. He is a hustler who fasttalks his way through life and through his relationships with girlfriend Wanda (Rachel Weisz) and everyone else.

Santa, meanwhile, is the stressed-out head of an international business with a stellar reputation. The casting of Paul Giamatti in this role could have gone either way. Turns out it was inspired. With his beady eyes and tobacco- stained teeth (not to mention CGI fingers the size of kielbasas), Giamatti turns the jolly old elf character sideways. He has a battle-ax of a wife (Miranda Richardson) who hates his brother and wants Nick to do something about his eating disorder, which has given him sleep apnea and, apparently, what is referred to these days as ED.

When Fred runs afoul of the law, Nick agrees to bail him out, provided that Fred comes to the North Pole to assist with the pre-Christmas production push.

Fred's freewheeling methods wreak havoc, and Northcutt uses mind games to play one brother off the other.

About halfway through, Dobkin's North Pole starts to feel like the sort of neurotic, New Yorkish world of classic Woody Allen. Here, the elves drink afterhours in a pub called Frosty's. The head elf (John Michael Higgins, midgetalized) pines for a real-life Pole employee (Elizabeth Banks), whose miniskirt ends just slightly below his sightline. The Clauses fly in a shrink for an intervention, and Fred attends a sibling support group. Add Mia Farrow, and you could call this film "Santa and His Brother."

It all, of course, ends well, as Sinead O'Connor sings "Silent Night" over the Christmas morning montage.

Perhaps the biggest problem with "Fred Claus" is that it is neither entirely naughty nor entirely nice. It is a perfectly fine Black Friday film for the family, though the humor might be over the heads of younger kids, who will probably wish there were more sight gags and more sophisticated special effects. And people who prefer their film fare served with treacle, not snark, will leave the theater wanting..



2 1/2 stars (out of 4)

STARRING: Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti, Miranda Richardson and Kathy Bates

DIRECTOR: David Dobkin

RUNNING TIME: 115 minutes

RATING: PG for mild language and some rude humor.

THE LOWDOWN: Havoc breaks out when stressed- out Santa brings on his slacker brother to help with the holiday push.

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