December 4, 2008

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Four Christmases (PG-13)
A couple learns about the importance of holiday suffering in Four Christmases, one of the obligatory holiday-themed movies inflicted upon us this year.

Brad (Vince Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon) are a couple in love — in love but not in marriage, which they fear would turn all their warm feelings toward each other into spite and bitterness. (Probably, but, kids, you get kitchenware!) One of their couple traditions (along with cultivating joint hobbies and a little naughty role-playing) has been to skip family-filled Christmas gatherings (between them and their divorced parents they’d have four to attend) and jet off to some place tropical for the holidays. Thanks to a fog bank, they’re grounded this year, and thanks to a TV news crew, their families know about their in-town-ness. Thusly, Brad and Kate must spend time with Brad’s grizzled dad (Robert Duvall) and ultimate fighter brothers, Kate’s cougar-ish mom (Mary Steenburgen) and belittling female family members, Brad’s hippy mom (Sissy Spacek) and her too young new boyfriend, and Kate’s reserved dad (Jon Voight), who appears too late in the game to get any really big personality flaws. Also, siblings — including Brad’s happily married yet uber-aggressive brother Denver (Jon Favreau) and Kate’s uber-fertile sister Courtney (Kristen Chenowith). Along the way, their families spill embarrassing moments from the respective childhoods of the now successful and attractive Brad and Kate.

Kate was fat! Brad’s real name is Orlando! Their parents are crazy! Ha ha HA … ugh.

I’ll give the movie this: it gets right to the point. It delivers the exposition on these characters in the most straightforward way I’ve seen in a while and then gets right to the comic problem (fog) and the ensuing hilarity (visits to wacky family). Like a multi-course meal timed to have you in and out before your parking pass expires, this movie hustles you through the plot — appetizer, soup, hilarious pratfall, fish course, moment of emotional awareness, entrée, requisite fight scene. Bam, bam, bam, gather your popcorn boxes on the way out of the theater, don’t dilly-dally during the credits. I appreciate this — if a movie’s going to suck, it might as well suck fast.

Witherspoon, a smart actress who is talented enough at comic roles, could have mailed her performance in on a postcard her role was so thin. Vaughn’s direction was clearly “do your Vince Vaughn thing” and he did, at all times, in all directions, whether it worked or not. Their characters could have had chemistry but no one bothered to develop it. The movie could have had something to say about the uncomfortable mixing of the adult person you’ve created and the child your family knows (yes, yes, pratfalls and baby vomit jokes included — I’m not a complete Scrooge) but it didn’t bother to wedge any substance in the parade of sub-par gags. And in the end the movie didn’t even really seem to have a point. The movie never bothers to decide if it’s pro loving your crazy family in spite of their faults or pro getting the hell away from your crazy family. So the film boils down to nothing with its faint vapors of sour comedy dissipating by the time you hit the multiplex parking lot. C-

Rated PG-13 for some sexual language and humor. Directed by Seth Gordon and written by Matt Allen, Caleb Wilson, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, Four Christmases is an hour and 20 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Warner Bros.