When I was choosing the poster to add to this review, I had a choice to make: "Which better sums up the movie," I asked myself, "the one where Vince Vaughn looks like a smug dick, or the one where he is acting oppressively & unamusingly zany?" I picked, well, it's right over there. The zany one is here.

That's Fred Claus for you in a nutshell: smug dickitude blended with spastic physical comedy in a soulless concoction that's a joy-sinkhole for the whole family. Isn't the Christmas season grand?

What's really shocking is not the fact that Vince Vaughn's attempt at a family comedy turned out so feebly (I mean, really, what about his persona makes you want to see him in a PG environment?), but the number of usually talented actors who've come along for the ride: Paul Giamatti, Rachel Weisz, Kathy Bates, Miranda Richardson, John Michael Higgins. I assume they were all drawn by the same impulse: "ah, a movie for the children!" Let us not be so vulgar as to assume that filthy lucre played a part.

As you've doubtlessly learned from the inescapable ad campaign, Fred Claus is the story of Santa Claus (Giamatti) and his obnoxious, estranged older brother (Vaughn) who leaves Chicago for the North Pole one year for mercenary reasons, but ends up reconnecting with his family and getting all filled up with the Spirit of Christmas. What the ads did not tell you about are the weird grace notes: Fred is the next thing to a confidence trickster, a repo man prowling the streets of Chicago for easy ways to scrounge up enough money to build an OTB facility across from the Mercantile Exchange, while doing everything he can to keep his transplanted Londoner meter maid girlfriend (Weisz) from getting too completely pissed off at him. Santa blackmails him into coming to the Pole for the first time ever, by holding $5000 in bail money and $50,000 in seed money over Fred's head.

Ah, 'tis a Christmas movie where Santa has to bail his brother out of jail for assault! Fa-la-la!

Truth be told, some of the backstory that gets us that far is actually kind of interesting: the first five minutes tell of how long ago in what appears to be the Black Forest, young Frederick Claus was terribly dismayed by how wonderfully his brother Nicholas was at everything in life, and so when Nicholas was made a saint, freezing his entire family in time (I'm no Catholic, but that seems like wrong theology), Fred drifted away from the rest, suffering from inferiority and lack of attention. It's different, you've got to give it that much. And the visual evocation of medieval Germany is agreeably fairy tale-esque, much like you might see in a lavishly illustrated kid-friendly collection of Grimm stories.

Obviously, somebody involved with the filmmaking process knew something about charm, because that opening sequence is nothing but charming. But once the action rotates over to the modern day, it just gets bizarre: besides the significant tension between the film's two topics (Santa and his family vs. Santa's brother is a sleazy urbanite with money problems), there are two distinct tonal layers of the film that just don't mesh: on the one hand, it is full of sweetness and gentle humor, whether it's Fred encouraging head elf Willie (Higgins) to pursue romance or Santa and Fred inevitably reconciling; on the other, there is frequent slapstick of the noisiest and broadest manner, much of it revolving around Santa's fatness and the elves' shortness, and in one nightmarish instance, Santa's erectile dysfunction. And there's actually a third layer that dies in its crib: Vaughn's smooth ad-libbing, which would be sardonic and cool if only he could actually go on a riff rather than reign himself in, hobbled by the plotline and the need to avoid breaking into Magical PG-13 Land. All of this is as much to say that the film has a tremendous identity crisis, wanting to be sweet and sarcastic, familial and naughty, and it pulls itself in too many directions to work at any of it.

So yes, basically, you can tell this is the work of David Dobkin, formerly of Wedding Crashers and Shanghai Knights, although this falls between those two on the tolerability scale. Canned emotion and outsized humor, shot without a whit of personality. I am genuinely not sure what Dobkin must have done on set, but I do know what he did not do: inform the actors that they were playing a little too much to the cheap seats. It's just straight-up frustrating to watch the likes of Giamatti and Richardson being so aimlessly goofy.

It comes as a surprise who turns out to be the best member of the cast, given his essentially unplayable role, but: Kevin Spacey. Yes, Mr. "Pay It Forward" himself. Spacey plays Clyde Northcutt, an efficiency expert sent to Santa's workshop by "the board" with the express goal of shutting the operation down. Honestly, there's not a lot to do with the role, or its inevitable redemption arc, but Spacey clearly enjoys Grinching it up, and he's really the only person worth watching. Between this and Superman Returns, it's becoming obvious again as it was obvious in the mid-90s, that Spacey excels at playing villains, self-aware and snarky villains, perhaps, but none of this sentimental bullcrap.

Not that what he does is per se funny, of course. Nothing here is per se funny, only varying degrees of loud (in which respect it is much like co-scenarist Jessie Nelson's last film, Because I Said So, if we're still looking to assign blame). The one exception is a truly magnificent "Siblings Anonymous" support group sequence featuring Frank Stallone, Stephen Baldwin and of all people Roger Clinton playing themselves. It's one of the very best meta-funny scenes I've seen all year, and it stands out for two reasons: first, because it is successful, unlike the rest of the film; second, because it is full of wicked barbs about Frank Stallone, in a fucking Santa Claus movie.