Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Holiday re-gifting

Posted on Wed, Dec 3, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Four Christmases
Director: Seth Gordon
Screenwriter: Seth Gordon
Cast: Vince Vaughn, Reese Witherspoon, Noah Munck, Haley Hallak, Robert Duvall
Release Date: 2008-12-03
Rated: PG-13
Genre: Film

Like that relative who turns up at your doorstep each December 25, managing his comb-over with a licked finger after handing you a re-gifted Clapper, there’s no shaking the annual reappearance of the Christmas film. And let’s face it — there hasn’t been a truly decent one since Clark Griswold’s oversized tree unfolded its limbs though his front windows. Ever since, it seems filmmakers have been doing nothing more than shifting their hands around in the old grab bag of holiday-movie tricks — something catches on fire, someone falls from a roof, granny says something vulgar, etc., etc. Last year it was Fred Claus, before that Deck the Halls, and you can keep tracing your way back, if you wish, through the string of mediocre Christmas fare that has become as ho-hum a tradition as fruitcake or light-up ties. This season, Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon try wrapping that same package in different paper with Four Christmases.

According to Vaughn’s character, Brad, “You really can’t spell families without lies,” and apparently audiences really can’t have a little holiday fun without a lot of dysfunction. For years, perfectly adorable (and decidedly unmarried) couple Brad and Kate (Witherspoon) have ditched the usual Christmas rigmarole with their parents, each set divorced, to vacation in exotic locales under the guise of doing a little charity work. This year, however, Christmas-morning fog keeps their escape flight grounded in San Francisco, where they’re obligated to make appearances at four family festivities in one day. Brad and Kate’s perfectly adorable relationship begins to suffer when they’re forced to face the relatives who fostered their shared fear of marriage and family in the first place.

Four Christmases boasts a roster of familiar faces (Sissy Spacek, Robert Duval, Mary Steenburgen, Dwight Yoakam, Tim McGraw, Jon Favreau, and Jon Voight) playing the requisite kooky relatives, ranging from a retired military hard-ass to a lusty cougar. While each may proffer a few laughs and set up a comic mishap or two, there’s little to like among them; in all their bad qualities, there isn’t even the slightest glimmer of good to redeem them after all is said and done. And redemption is important since we’re to believe Brad and Kate are eventually inspired by the day’s events to reevaluate their feelings toward their families and each other. Without a plausible arc, then, Four Christmases is all shtick.

On the plus side, shtick is something Vaughn is rather good at, along with humorous, rambling adlibbing. The film struggled to fruition during the recent writer’s strike, so Vaughn’s gift of gab was reportedly welcomed. Notable tangents include a conflict at a family game of Taboo and a debate over how Brad might, or might not, attend to Kate in the case of a hypothetical plane crash. There’s some creative and enjoyable dialogue here and there, but rest assured, something does catch on fire, someone does fall off a roof, granny does say something vulgar, and in the end Four Christmases fails to offer audiences anything they haven’t already been given. •

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