The sort of Christmas treat that makes global warming look like a good idea, this cynical seasonal cash-in doesn't have a story to tell, just a concept to sell. To wit: the sibling rivalry felt by Saint Nick's neglected older brother, Fred (Vince Vaughn).
It's rarely a good idea to toy with tried and tested folklore, and warning bells start ringing loud and clear when the narrator breezily informs us of the "little known rule" that saints and the family of saints "become timeless". That is, they stop aging, (although they can still get fatter).
All this to explain the ellipsis between a prologue in a log cabin in the Black Forest and present day in Chicago, which is where we find cynical Fred, a repo man with dreams of setting up a betting shop, an English traffic warden for a girlfriend (Rachel Weisz), and enough of a solvency problem that he winds up being chased through the streets by a dozen angry Santas straight into a jail cell. I guess immortality doesn't bestow wisdom because Fred has little option but to phone his brother and beg for the bail money.
Saint Nick (Paul Giamatti) can hardly refuse, but he does insist Fred comes up north to work off the debt in the run up to Christmas. He even sends his personal sleigh to pick him up.
Santa's home is familiar from The Polar Express and Elf: a cross between a gingerbread grotto and a Siberian industrial zone populated by an army of short workers wearing green tunics and red and white tights.
For reasons possibly excised for the sake of the PG certificate Santa's little helper Charlene (Elizabeth Banks) is a blonde bombshell a head taller than anyone else. Except of course for Santa and Mrs Santa (Miranda Richardson). Weirdly digitally shrunk, John Michael Higgins and Ludacris are among the elves - CGI is depriving dwarves of acting gigs these days.
Vaughn/Fred runs through a few hand-me-down Will Ferrell/Elf routines before it becomes apparent that there is a serious plot deficiency here - a void hastily if mystifyingly filled by Kevin Spacey's Efficiency expert, here to close down operations at the drop of a bobble hat. (And he is representative of, whom, pray? The best the film can come up with is: "the board".)
This is thin and then some. The filmmakers throw in a few more subplots to pass the time: the elf with the hots for Charlene; the black orphan kid ("Slam") who has imbibed Fred's cynicism but really wants a puppy for Christmas, Fred's and Nick's impossible mom (Kathy Bates). And so on.
Not much of it sticks. I did enjoy the Siblings Anonymous meeting, not that there was anything anonymous about cameos from Frank Stallone, Roger Clinton and Stephen Baldwin, all playing themselves. At least it raised a chuckle, which makes it the hands-down highlight of the second half of the movie.
My advice: hold on until something better comes along.