As I was leaving the screening for "Four Christmases," fellow critic Ed Johnson Ott, of Nuvo Newsweekly, summed up the film perfectly when he said "If I were sitting at home wrapping presents, I wouldn't turn it off."
I'm not sure I can sum up the experience of seeing "Four Christmases," starring Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon, any better than Ott's succinct observation.
Despite a nearly constant feeling of "been there, seen that," "Four Christmases" is an easygoing, pleasant and modestly entertaining holiday flick that gets by mostly on the strength of Witherspoon's winning performance.
In "Four Christmases," Vaughn and Witherspoon play Brad and Kate, a happily unmarried couple who've made their own holiday tradition of lying to their respective families about their plans in an effort to avoid spending Christmas with their dysfunctional families in favor of a more stress free, commitment free week on a sunny beach somewhere. When their flight to Fiji is cancelled due to an intense San Francisco fog, the two are seen on local news, their lie unfolds and, yes, off they go to spend Christmas with both sets of divorced parents for "Four Christmases."
By the end of Christmas Day, one of two things will happen...Either Brad and Kate will crumble of the weight of four family Christmases, or Brad and Kate will learn valuable lessons about life, family, priorities and relationships on the way to family healing galore.
This is a Christmas film, so I'll give you one guess as to which one happens.
"Four Christmases" IS predictable. My guess would be that within the film's first 15 minutes you will have it perfectly and accurately mapped out. You will be right.
The first family, Brad's father (Robert Duvall) and two brothers (Jon Favreau and Tim McGraw), is perhaps the most dysfunctional of all. Duvall's Howard is also happily unmarried, and it becomes apparent quite quickly where Brad gets his attitude, commitment issues and even some of his lines. Having achieved a degree of academic and financial success, Brad is clearly the outsider among siblings who pass their time as amateur cage wrestlers and who can't seem to say anything to Brad without it involving a body slam.
The next family on the agenda, Kate's mother (Mary Steenburgen), is almost a polar opposite to the first family. Her mother has taken up with Pastor Phil (Dwight Yoakam), in a house filled with religiously obsessed and sexually repressed female relatives. Kate's sister, Courtney (Kristin Chenoweth), has apparently done her own taunting of her younger sibling and won't let Kate forget about her days as "Cootie Kate." When a family trip to Pastor Phil's Christmas morning service goes awry, the increasingly distressed couple are on their way again.
Did I spell cootie right?
This time, we bounce over to Brad's mother (Sissy Spacek). She's apparently married now to Brad's childhood best friend, and despite the previously reported stress one of his siblings also shows up at mom's. It's never really mentioned WHY he shows up or, for that matter, why the other one doesn't.
Do we really expect logic in a Christmas film?
By the end of this vignette, Brad and Kate seem to be clearly headed towards splitsville on their way to the final parent, Kate's father (Jon Voight).
Is there really any doubt how this will all end?
Along with the unexplained presence of a sibling in two of the vignettes, the entire notion of four Christmases is tossed aside by the final vignette. Again, however, if you can let go of inexplicable plot twists and just enjoy the film's spirit then this is likely to bother you much less than it did me.
Witherspoon could play the role of Kate in her sleep, but to her credit she doesn't do so. Witherspoon embodies Kate with far more than just easygoing laughs and her bubbly personality. Kate is transformed over the course of the day, and Witherspoon makes the transformation a delight to watch. As the young couple heads to the final parent, Witherspoon's face reveals all as she realizes the mistakes she's made and the choices she wants to make.
Vaughn, on the other hand, flounders a bit in the film's later scenes. He's a joy to behold as the commitment phobic Brad, but when the film begins to turn towards a potentially different resolution Vaughn is less convincing and, unfortunately, this combines with a far too pat ending to give "Four Christmases" a rather abrupt and unsatisfying closing.
Screenwriters Matt Allen and Caleb Wilson try too hard and pack in too much within the course of the film's 82-minutes and four vignettes. Given the talent present in the supporting cast, it's a shame that "Four Christmases" is only a modestly entertaining when it had the potential to be so much more.
Voight? He finally has a supporting performance here of which he need not be ashamed. The only problem is there's not enough of it. The same is true for Mary Steenburgen, Dwight Yoakam and, especially, Sissy Spacek and Kristin Chenoweth's Courtney. The scenes between Courtney and Kate are among the film's best, as both actresses seem to find both the comic potential and tender aspects of their characters.
Director Seth Gordon ("King of Kong") keeps "Four Christmases" moving at a nice pace...perhaps too breezy of a clip given the amount of material that needs to be covered. He even offers audiences who are watching a certain cameo glimpse of a beloved grown up character from a favorite Christmas Story past.
As should be expected, the film's tech credits are solid and "Four Christmases" mixes a nice combination of retro, contemporary, classic and alternative holiday tunes.
While "Four Christmases" isn't quite the comic force one might believe from its entertaining trailers, it is a promising start to a time of year that can be a cinematic dead zone.
"Christmas with the Kranks," anyone?
Thanks to a satisfying performance by Witherspoon and Vaughn's dependable comic chops, "Four Christmases" is a modestly entertaining holiday film for the entire family.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic