Reel Opinions

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Four Christmases

Compared to recent family holiday cinematic turkeys like Christmas With the Kranks and The Perfect Holiday, Four Christmases is a step above. The plotting is completely conventional and mundane, so much so that it's amazing it took four different credited screenwriters to dream it up. Fortunately, Vince Vaughn is here to add some unexpected sarcasm and general humor to the generic proceedings. He's put to much better use here than he was in last year's holiday comedy, Fred Claus. His presence doesn't quite turn the movie into something I can recommend, but he sure does make the whole thing go down easier.

Vaughn is backed up by a talented cast who don't quite make the same impression he does, but give it their all. Reese Witherspoon is his main co-star. They play Brad and Kate respectively - A wealthy and self centered couple who don't believe in a lot of things. They don't believe in marriage (complicates what they think is a strong relationship), having children (ditto), and especially visiting their family for the holidays, as they both have personal skeletons in their closet concerning their families they'd rather forget. Each Christmas, the couple make up an excuse as to why they can't visit (usually revolving around volunteer work in another country), and then take off on a dream vacation together. This year, their destination is the islands of Fiji, but a heavy fog grounds and cancels all the flights. A local anchorwoman is at the airport covering the widespread cancellations, and puts Brad and Kate on the air, which blows their ruse about doing volunteer work. Their families just happen to be watching, and immediately invite them over for the holidays.

The title comes from the fact that both Brad and Kate's parents are divorced, so the couple must hit four separate homes in one day in order to be with the entire family. The strong casting continues when they visit the first home, and meet Brad's redneck father (Robert Duvall) and his two violent brothers, Denver and Dallas (Jon Favreau and Tim McGraw). Next, it's off to Kate's religious mother (Mary Steenburgen), where Kate's past as an overweight and awkward child comes back to haunt her, and the couple find themselves suckered into playing Mary and Joseph in the church Nativity play. After that, they pay a visit to Brad's mom (Sissy Spacek) for an embarrassing game of Taboo, where the couple learn they don't know as much about each other as they thought. Finally, they hit Kate's dad (John Voight), where Brad and Kate finally begin to question if they really have all the answers, and if there's more to life than just themselves. Due to the film's brisk pace and 82 minute running time, we spend little time getting to know their individual families. In particular, John Voight and Sissy Spacek could have grabbed their paychecks and ran, considering the little amount of screen time they each get.

Four Christmases is harmless and fairly safe entertainment where we feel like we're constantly a step ahead of the characters. We know as soon as Kate holds a baby in her arms during their first home visit that her maternal instincts are going to kick in, and that she's going to start questioning where her relationship with Brad is really going. This is going to cause a rift between the couple, which will add some drama in the third act. A lot of the physical gags are equally predictable. We know that one of those babies that winds up in Kate's arms is going to spit up on her, even if we didn't see the shot in the trailer. And why would Brad be up on his dad's roof doing handiwork if he wasn't going to fall off? Director Seth Gordon (who just last year brought us the wonderful and witty documentary about video games, The King of Kong) knows how to play ball, and doesn't attempt anything fancy. To its credit, the movie does have a number of warm and honest moments in between the broad and predictable gags. It avoids manipulative sentiment, and stays fairly true to its nature, which is a little bit darker than the norm when it comes to holiday comedies.

Why darker? Well, the characters who populate this movie aren't the usual sympathetic types. The movie paints all of its characters in shades of gray, which is one of two unexpected things it does. The other unexpected thing is how surprisingly sharp the comedic wordplay between the characters is, especially Vince Vaughn, who gets most of the film's biggest laughs. A lot of the best dialogue seems as if it were improvised there on the set. It's almost as if the actors knew what kind of a movie they were in, and decided to liven things up the best they could. It certainly helps keep the movie from getting bogged down in its own predictability, but never quite turns it into a success. The humor is wildly uneven, and is usually at its best when it allows its two lead stars to just talk to each other. Despite rumored reports of Vaughn and Witherspoon having a rough time working together on the set, they have strong comic chemistry together on film. They carry this movie, even when the script itself is throwing well-worn material at them.

Four Christmases is one of those films that is nothing special, but I didn't mind watching. There are some moments of genuinely funny dialogue, the performers are game, and the whole thing has a light and breezy quality to it. Still, director Seth Gordon deserves better, and if he wants to break into mainstream Hollywood, I advise that he be a little bit choosier with his next project. I'd hate to see him go the same way as many other talented independent filmmakers who threw their talents away on mediocre big budget productions. He doesn't bomb here, but something tells me things would have turned out differently if he didn't have such a talented and quick on their feet cast to work with.

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