Four Christmases (United States/Germany, 2008)
This is what happens when a successful indie documentary filmmaker gets sucked in by the Hollywood system. As one can guess from the number of writers involved in this project, Four Christmases is wildly uneven, veering from screwball comedy to would-be heartfelt drama with an inelegance that is more likely to cause whiplash than an emotional catharsis. For a while, Seth Gordon's (The King of Kong) feature tries to stake its claim alongside other misdeed-strewn Christmas comedies like National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, but its implosion and collapse into unfulfilling melodrama during its final third represents as close as a movie like this can get to self-immolation.
Four Christmases opens with a "meet cute" between Brad (Vince Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon) in a bar that turns out to be a little less conventional than we suspect. The next thing we know, they're on their way to Fiji for Christmas, having decided that the least desirable option for the holiday is to spend it with friends and family. But a massive fogbank envelops San Francisco and they're stuck for at least a day. That means dividing the time between Brad's divorced mom and dad and Kate's divorced mom and dad. The first visit takes Kate into the den of redneck testosterone that is inhabited by Brad's father (Robert Duvall) and Brad's two brothers, Denver (Jon Favreau) and Dallas (Tim McGraw). This is where a woman's role is to be kept barefoot and pregnant. Stop #2 is to drop in on Kate's mother (Mary Steenburgen) and sister (Kristen Chenoweth). This is followed by a visit to Brad's mom (Sissy Spacek) then to Kate's dad (Jon Voight). By the time of the "fourth Christmas," our cheerful couple's secure and loving relationship is in tatters.
The film's first half contains some edgy comedy. It's the kind of dark material that can make a viewer squirm a little and a scene in which a misstep by Brad nearly destroys his father's house recalls some of the more outrageous moments of Christmas Vacation. Unfortunately, the film fails to continue at this manic level. With each subsequent visit, Four Christmases becomes less amusing and more tedious. The fourth visit isn't funny, nor is that the intention. This is supposed to be serious and dramatic and it doesn't work. As with many comedies that want to go straight at the end to provide an emotional impact, the tonal shift fails because the characters are underdeveloped. For most of the movie's running length (which is surprisingly short, as about 80 minutes), Brad and Kate are comedic caricatures. Wanting an audience to care about them and their circumstances during the final act doesn't work. They're not fleshed out enough. While there is a happy ending of sorts, it doesn't compensate for the downer that sucks the film's final twenty minutes into a morass of failed melodrama. Let me emphasize: there's nothing wrong with mingling drama and comedy, but it can only work if the characters convince in both the serious and the humorous parts of the story. That doesn't happen here.
Most of the supporting characters prove to be more effectively comedic than the two leads. Both Vince Vaughn (now in his second straight sub-par Christmas movie, following Fred Claus) and Reese Witherspoon are boring. Neither exudes much in the way of energy. Jon Favreau (Vaughn's long-time buddy and occasional collaborator) has a great time playing Brad's dumb, buff bro. Kristen Chenoweth doesn't get to sing but she does have ample opportunities to display her cleavage as well as the perkiness that makes her character of Olive in Pushing Daisies so endearing. And Robert Duvall gets a chance to play the father whom no one would want to visit on Christmas.
Every year, it seems that studios toss a seasonal movie or two into theaters in the hopes that viewers will use it as a means to whet their holiday appetites. Quality is rarely present, nor is it much of a factor. Four Christmases is waste of time and a disappointment, but it's also relatively painless. Some of the jokes work, there are some laughs to be had and, if it all falls apart in the final third, it's over soon enough that such a major structural fault is easily overlooked. We as audiences have come to expect very little from holiday themed movies, and that's precisely what Four Christmases delivers.
Four Christmases (United States/Germany, 2008)
Cast: Vince Vaughn, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Duvall, Jon Favreau, Tim McGraw, Mary Steenburgen, Kristen Chenoweth, Sissy Spacek, Jon Voight
Screenplay: Matt R. Allen & Caleb Wilson and Jon Lucas & Scott Moore
Cinematography: Jeffrey L. Kimball
Music: Alex Wurman
U.S. Distributor: New Line Cinema