The tradition of terrible yuletide movies kicks off for 2008 with the second holiday bomb in as many years starring Vince Vaughn. The man who gave us “Fred Claus” in 2007 now gives us “Four Christmases,” and we can only hope that, despite the title, two of these seasonal mistakes will be enough for him.
The quartet of writers—two of them neophytes, the other duo with only one major credit on their resume (the mediocre Martin Lawrence comedy “Rebound”)—have obviously seen “Meet the Parents” entirely too often, and decided it would be a scream multiplied. So they’ve constructed a scenario involving self-absorbed yuppies Brad (Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon), an unmarried San Francisco couple who make a point of avoiding visits to their divorced parents during the holidays by pretending to be off on charitable missions to Third World countries while actually on exotic vacation. Unfortunately, bad weather and an unexpected television interview in the airport exposes their ruse, and they’re compelled to make the full circuit.
So we’re treated, if that’s the word, to a meeting first with Brad’s irascible redneck father Howard (Robert Duvall) and his two dim-bulb brothers Denver (Jon Favreau) and Dallas (Tim McGraw), “extreme” fighters who insist on brutalizing him at every opportunity, as well as their nasty kids and Denver’s white-trash wife Susan (Katy Mixon). Then it’s off to Kate’s mother Marilyn (Mary Steenburgen), a member of a boisterous church where the couple is forced to play Mary and Joseph in a ludicrous pageant, and her sister Courtney (Kristin Chenoweth), who happily reveals all Kate’s childhood embarrassments (and whose irritating little daughter torments her). Then comes Brad’s hippie-like mother Paula (Sissy Spacek), who’s living with his erstwhile best friend, and with whom the couple play a typically anger-inducing board game. Finally there’s Kate’s father Creighton (Jon Voight), a thoughtful, sensitive fellow who’s discovered the joys of family in his declining years.
Oddly, the impact on Kate of all the slapstick humiliations and sitcom vulgarities (like the inevitable naughty-tongued old grandma) is to persuade her that the life she’s enjoyed with Brad has been missing something—that she wants a wedding and a family herself. Can Brad overcome his commitment-phobia, or will the two part company? What do you think?
“Four Christmases” follows the pattern of so many Hollywood comedies nowadays: three parts crude farce, with plenty of comic violence and sexual innuendo, followed by a final reel awash in sappy, supposedly uplifting sentiment. It’s a gruesome mixture that Vaughn, tempering his fast-talking operator shtick only slightly, and Witherspoon, more icy than endearingly perky until the last act, can’t pull off. Nor are the supporting cast at their best. Duvall’s mean-spirited curmudgeon is quite possibly a career low, while Voight is blandly laid-back and both Spacek and Steenburgen are largely wasted. At that, though, they come off better than Favreau, who’s saddled with one of those goof-ball parts that bring out the worst in actors. Better is Chenoweth, who overcomes her character’s early annoying quality pretty well in the later going. Dwight Yoakam shows up as the ebullient head of Marilyn’s church; it’s odd that more wasn’t made of this weird character, who’s treated remarkably gently. Maybe the filmmakers were afraid of insulting Christians in the audience, but if that’s the case, what’s with that Christmas pageant, which comes off as in ludicrously bad taste? (And what’s with the congregation’s ready acceptance of it?)
The picture is directed, laxly, by Seth Gordon, whose documentary “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” represented a promise that isn’t realized here. But one shouldn’t be too hard on him. “Four Christmases” isn’t just the sort of clumsily formulaic stuff that would have defeated the most experienced helmer; it boasts a cast that would have intimidated him, too. No wonder that Gordon appears to have stood back and just let the actors do their thing without much interference. The picture’s no prize technically, either; the production design (Shepherd Frankel), art direction (Mike Atwell and Oana Bogdan) and sets (Daniel Bradford, Dawn Snyder and Jan Pascale) are mediocre, and the cinematography (Jeffrey L. Kimball) not much better.
When Alvin the Chipmunk (yes, that Alvin) ran for president in 1960 (yes, he’s that old), his campaign song promised four Christmases every year. This movie shows what a bad idea that would be. “Four Christmases” is one Christmas movie too many.