To put it in the best light possible, I recommend thinking of Four Christmases not as a really short movie but as a very special holiday episode of a sitcom. At 82 minutes, it’s not a whole lot longer than one of those. Moreover, both its humor and its structure are tailor made for the tube. You can just see the commercial breaks falling neatly between the principal characters’ visits to the four family gatherings in question.
Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon play a carefree San Francisco couple who’ve been together for three years, share a great apartment, and are way too busy having fun to contemplate marriage or children. They’re like a breezier, less complicated version of, say, Ross and Rachel, and the film’s early scenes give us an idea of how a weekly half hour with this pair might look.
The show’s — er, film’s — premise is that they’re the last of the hedonistic singles in their peer group. While their friends are home changing diapers or driving to school plays, Brad and Kate are squeezing every last drop out of life as attractive, unencumbered thirtysomethings. In one “episode,” they role-play at a bar. In another, they take dancing lessons just for the hell of it. (The other couples in the class are all preparing for their weddings.) And when the holidays roll around, they take exotic tropical vacations, leaving their relatives with the impression that they’ve traveled to one impoverished nation or another to do charitable work.
Except, in this particular holiday episode, fog strands the couple at the airport. A local television news crew turns its camera on them to ask how they feel about being grounded — at which point Brad and Kate realize they’ve been busted and will be forced to endure actual face time with their kin. Since both are children of divorce, this will entail visits to four separate households, each with its own set of horrors, family secrets and cheesy, TV-level gags.
Celebrity guests have become a staple of sitcoms, and ours embraces the trend wholeheartedly. There’s more than enough Hollywood talent here for nine or 10 first-rate motion pictures. It’s amazing that director Seth Gordon (The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters) managed to assemble such a slapdash feature debut when he had the services of Jon Favreau, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen, Dwight Yoakam, Carol Kane, Jon Voight and Robert Duvall on hand.
To put it kindly, some of the couple’s four stops are more inspired than others. The first is a total throwaway, though it is preceded by an amusing scene in which Vaughn and Witherspoon work out a safe word to use in the event they should need to make a speedy exit. (It’s “mistletoe.”) Parent Number One is Vaughn’s old man, an inexplicably coarse and ornery rube played by Duvall. The gag here is that Brad’s two brothers (Favreau and Tim McGraw) are amateur cage wrestlers who attack him repeatedly as Dad drinks beer in his La-Z-Boy and laughs. “Mistletoe!”
Parent Number Two is Kate’s mom. As played by Steenburgen, she’s more an idea for a character than an actual one, so halfheartedly sketched she barely registers on the screen. The gag is that she’s been born again (or at least become preoccupied with church activities), and happens to be dating her pastor (Yoakam). Though I’m not 100 percent certain this qualifies as a gag. Anyway, there’s a sub-gag, too: Brad is shown a family photo album and, guess what — Kate was overweight as a child! “You looked like you had a twin and ate it,” is the best quip Vaughn can muster.
Then it’s on to Brad’s mom (Spacek), who is shacked up with his childhood best friend. “Your mother is a very sexual being,” he is informed. Before we have time to wonder why news of the relationship didn’t reach Brad earlier, we’re on to our final stop of the day, the home of Kate’s father (Voight).
En route, however, the couple hits the mandatory third-act bump in the road. All the emotions that have bubbled to the surface during the day and all the exposure to babies have given Kate second thoughts about their chosen path. Brad isn’t ready to jump on board with the notion of major lifestyle changes, however, so, after a brief spat, he deposits her at her dad’s for Christmas Number Four and drives off to think deep thoughts.
This being a yuletide button pusher, the audience can have zero doubt about how things will turn out, but a dearth of suspense is hardly the film’s chief shortcoming. The picture has four writers and about as many solid laughs. Some sort of record very probably has been set, in fact, for the wholesale squandering of major screen talent. Nobody expects cinematic greatness from home-for-the-holidays movies. At the same time, you don’t see names like Sissy Spacek or Robert Duvall in a picture’s credits and anticipate a pinheaded exercise in Stooges-level slapstick.
Vaughn does his best to give the proceedings a shot of verbal adrenaline, but even his trademark comic patter proves insufficient to bring these uneven and haphazard vignettes to life. Despite the promise Gordon’s shown previously, and the presence of an extraordinarily accomplished cast, there’s little to be said for Four Christmases. With the possible exception of “Mistletoe!”