Trike Force: Vaughn peddles Fred Claus with all he?s got.

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Vince Vaughn gives me the same feeling I used to get from Bill Murray—that whatever movie he’s in can barely keep up with his subversion. The best thing to be said, then, about Fred Claus is that it gives Vaughn a fair amount of tether before hogtying him into submission. As Santa’s disgruntled older brother, reduced to running scams on the streets of Chicago, Vaughn imposes his will not through bulk (though he has plenty) but through spiel: a flow of demotic persuasion, each line a bigger lie than the last. What keeps you on his side, finally, are the smudges of desperation under his eyes. So very desperate is Fred that, for quick money, he agrees to take a temp job at his brother’s toy factory at the North Pole. Tasked with stamping naughty or nice on children’s dossiers, he devotes himself to such rabble-rousing activities as teaching the workers to boogie, coaching the head elf in lovemaking, and—you guessed it—questioning the whole notion of naughty vs. nice. Never once does this big spangly artificial tree of a movie look or smell natural, but Dan Fogelman’s screenplay at least delays the Father Flanagan pathos until the last half-hour, and strewn about the screen like gifts are some wonderful actors, including Kathy Bates, Miranda Richardson, John Michael Higgins, Rachel Weisz (smashingly attractive as Fred’s girlfriend), and Paul Giamatti, who transforms Saint Nick into something out of Arthur Miller, dragging the weight of generations on his ermine-clad shoulders. Confidential note to Hollywood: If you wish to convince viewers of Christmas’ regenerative powers, please refrain in the future from casting Kevin Spacey, whose black-hole irises suck down every “ho ho ho” within a square-mile radius.