Dir: David Dobkin. US. 2007. 114mins.

A full-on Vince Vaughn charm offensive gives loose-limbed holiday tale Fred Claus its own successful, charismatic personality and appeal. Re-teaming Wedding Crashers director David Dobkin and Vaughn for the third time, the movie wraps Vaughn's trademark quasi-improvisational runs of passive-aggressive patter around two wan storylines - of fraternal tension and Christmas under siege - making for a pleasant, form-fitted vehicle of engagingly manic buoyance, if also one that pays inconsistent attention to its own through lines.

Though he's had many hits, Vaughn has yet to prove himself as a stand-alone box office draw, and Fred Claus represents the biggest challenge in that regard to date. Dodgeball, Wedding Crashers and The Break-Up all opened to the tune of $30m-plus, but had the advantage of high-profile co-stars. While staffed with capable, recognisable supporting players, Fred Claus is being sold on Vaughn's name alone.

A big opening for the movie seems guaranteed. Whether Warner Bros. can make inroads with the same audience that made Will Ferrell's Elf a PG-rated smash ($173m domestically, $47m internationally) four years ago in the same frame will depend on whether fans of Vaughn's edgier fare return for encore servings. While there's nothing inherently profane about Vaughn's comedy, repeat business from this demographic will be key, as Fred Claus doesn't have the same built-in audience advantages that helped make Tim Allen's innocuous Santa Clause franchise (three movies, $470m worldwide) such a success.

Sustained seasonal ancillary value will remain high, with the anarchic yet still family-friendly Fred Claus somewhat splitting the difference between the willfully naughty, R-rated Bad Santa and far blander, forgettable holiday comedies.

Fred Claus (Vaughn) has lived his entire life in his younger brother's very large shadow. He tried but could hardly live up to the example set by Nicholas (Paul Giamatti), who was a perfect little saint. True to form, Nicholas grew up to be the model of giving, while Fred became the polar opposite: a fast-talking, rakishly self-centered repo man whose daydream schemes and serial absentmindedness leave his girlfriend, traffic cop Wanda (Weisz), perpetually exasperated.

Needing a sum of cash to close on an investment deal, Fred turns to impersonating a Salvation Army Santa Claus, which lands him in jail. He then calls his brother. Over the objections of his wife, Mrs. Claus (Richardson), Nicholas agrees to help Fred on one condition: that he come to the North Pole for a long-delayed visit, and earn the money he needs by helping out in Santa's workshop. Old fraternal tensions, mostly of the one-sided variety, come bubbling to the surface, and matters are further put at risk when stern efficiency expert Clyde Northcut (Spacey) arrives to audit Nicholas' enterprise, threatening the future of the jolliest holiday of the year.

Fred Claus works first and foremost as a vehicle for Vaughn's goosed-up, chatterbox patter; key to the entire enterprise is an appreciation of the actor as verbose, besieged and aggrieved. This means there's little for Mama and in particular Papa Claus (Bates and Peacock) to do and there are a few story strands that don't bring much to the movie - including one with Vaughn playing matchmaker and, after a terrifically funny introduction, another involving the moralising education of Fred's orphan neighbour (Thompson).

The movie's mandate is clearly broad appeal, which also leads to the somewhat dispiriting inclusion of goosed-up sound effects during a chase sequence involving multiple Santas. A couple of these impromptu slapstick bits, like a snowball fight between Fred and Nick, don't rise above the level of distractible interjections but others, such as a dance montage set to Elvis Presley's Rubberneckin', do.

Dan Fogelman's script wastes an awful lot of time dawdling on petty matters. Still, there are also some genuine and pleasant surprises in the narrative, including a Siblings Anonymous meeting with cameos from the brothers of Sylvester Stallone, Alec Baldwin and former President Bill Clinton.

Dobkin proves himself a gifted, intuitive comedy director. Even if one has qualms with the story choices, he stages a scene effectively and draws out naturalistic performances.

Vaughn is innately charming, a fact of which Fred Claus serves as the umpteenth example. Always a savvy professional, Giamatti injects a few small, smart notes of stress and vexation into his performance. Other actors aren't given as much to do, though Spacey does subtly channel some Lex Luthor villainy, all of which pays off in a scene that amusingly touches on Superman.

Tech credits are fairly polished, with production designer Allan Cameron crafting a budget-sized North Pole that feels like a comfy little ski town. The film also makes hearty use of motion capture digital head replacement, in similar fashion to the Wayans brothers' movie Little Man. While not without its occasional seams, visual effects supervisor Alex Bicknell's work with John Michael Higgins and Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges - the former as Santa's second-in-command, the latter as an elf workshop deejay - will surely delight younger viewers.

Production companies/backers
Warner Bros Pictures (US)
Silver Pictures (US)
David Dobkin Pictures (US)
Jessie Nelson Productions (US)

US distribution
Warner Bros

Joel Silver
Jessie Nelson
David Dobkin

Executive producers
Paul Hitchcock

Vince Vaughn

Dan Fogelman

Remi Adefarasin

Production designer
Allan Cameron

Mark Livolsi

Christophe Beck

Main cast
Vince Vaughn
Paul Giamatti
Kevin Spacey
Michael Higgins
Rachel Weisz
Elizabeth Banks
Miranda Richardson
Kathy Bates
Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges
Bobb'e J Thompson
Trevor Peacock