The ever-cuddly Vince Vaughn stars as the title lout, the long-neglected brother of St. Nick, who’s grown slightly crabby in the shadow of his beloved sib, here played by Paul Giamatti. Smooth-talking Fred gets by as a repo man in Chicago, but he needs a major chunk of change to fulfill his dream of opening an off-track-betting parlor, and to win back the affections of his long suffering gal pal Wanda (the lovely Rachel Weisz, sporting an incongruous cockney accent). Being a saint and all, jolly old Nick offers his bro a chance to earn the cash by coming to the North Pole and pitching in with the family business. It takes all of 30 seconds for this decision to backfire, as rambunctious Freddy begins wreaking havoc in the squeaky-clean gingerbread streets of the Pole’s winter wonderland.
Santa’s also under the gun. Seems an odious efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey), who threatens to outsource the whole operation to the South Pole, is due to arrive. You can insert your own globalization punch lines here. Actually, a punch-line dearth is the real threat here, with laughs sprinkled erratically throughout the brutally endless two-hour run time.
When the cookie-cutter script comes up short, the pressure rests on Vaughn’s trademarked, ad lib hipster jive talk — which is irritating, but good for a random chuckle. The real drag is that Vince, reunited with Wedding Crashers director David Dobkin, is laboring mightily against a PG rating, never able to fully cut loose a la Bad Santa, and not able to really commit to the feel-good squishiness all around. This awkwardness extends to the high-grade cast, which includes Miranda Richardson, Elizabeth Banks and Kathy Bates, who all look faintly uncomfortable standing around waiting for something funny to happen.
Worst off is poor John Michael Higgins, a dynamo in Christopher Guest’s movies, but here forced into an unbelievably creepy role as chipper head elf Willie — his noggin is digitally fused onto the body of a real little person, but in a cheesy, horribly distracting way. None of the bells and whistles help make any of this junk funnier, with many scenes desperately defaulting to violence, often with Vaughn fist-fighting dwarves, which sounds like it should work but just doesn’t. It’s like a newly unwrapped gift that’s missing batteries.