Four Christmases
Director
Cast
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Rated
PG-13
Runtime
82 min.
Release Date
11/26/2008
four christmases

Four Christmases represents the kind of passable holiday comedy that Hollywood serves up every year. Some flop. Most do not. The explanation is simple: During the holidays, families love to see movies about families during the holidays. The appeal, I suppose, is identifying with someone else’s holiday misfortune. Perhaps that’s why stories where everything goes wrong and then suddenly, somewhat unrealistically, work out in the final moments, happily stay with us—like It’s a Wonderful Life and Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

The movie’s premise is episodic by nature. Cutesy couple Brad (Vince Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon), hoping to forgo holiday stress by telling their families they’ll be too busy helping sick children in Burma to visit, find themselves interviewed on TV when bad weather cancels their getaway flight to Fiji. The jig is up, and for the first time in their three-year relationship, they’ll have to meet each other’s wacky families. Antics ensue.

Brad’s white trash father Howard (Robert Duvall) and two rowdy brothers Denver (Jon Favreau) and Dallas (Tim McGraw) relish in mocking and embarrassing him, resulting in plenty of painful roughhousing. Kate’s cougar mother Marilyn (Mary Steenburgen) revels in showing Brad a photo history of Kate’s former overweight and lesbian phases, later volunteering the couple for the lead roles her church’s enthusiastic nativity play. Brad’s mother Paula (Sissy Spacek) now sleeps with his ex-best friend Darryl (Patrick Van Horn), so that’s awkward. And finally, Kate’s dad Creighton (Jon Voight) teaches them all the importance of family.

Some make for funnier stops than others, each relatively inconsequential in the grand scheme. You know the drill. Each stop allows Brad and Kate to realize there’s plenty they don’t know about one another, and so they question their relationship for the briefest of moments, wondering, Do we really want a family together if it’s going to inevitably turn out like this? Resolved with thirty seconds of heartfelt discussion and a hug, the conflict and forced schmaltziness doesn’t occupy the dead space needed to link these four stops.

Vaughn and Witherspoon contain enough energy to keep their thin characters interesting, he with his aimless ad-libbed rants and her with her empathy. Although, by physical difference alone, this duo is mismatched—Vaughn towers over Witherspoon, causing our heads to tilt whenever they stand side-by-side. Last year Vaughn starred in Fred Claus, where the feuding Claus brothers worked out their family woes with some base humor and over-the-top antics, so this movie is right up Vaughn’s alley. Witherspoon is better than this, however. Indeed, none of the many Oscar-winners in the cast excel their performances passed caricature.

Trekking every other direction to make sure every segment of every family gets their due, such trials are exhausting, emotionally and physically. Those of us that can relate are just pleased someone, namely The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters director Seth Gordon, made a movie about it. Our laughter and enjoyment leave a latent bad taste, as we endure repeated slapstick and baby vomit gags (pun intended) within a curiously short 82-minute running time. But for those of us with divorced parents and seemingly more time spent driving on Christmas Day than visiting with loved ones, we can appreciate the frustration of having to be frustrated with the holidays.

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