So this is what five Oscar winners gets you? This is the result of the combined Academy caliber efforts of Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line), Sissy Spacek (Coal Miner’s Daughter), Mary Steenburgen (Melvin and Howard), Jon Voight (Coming Home), and Robert Duvall (Tender Mercies)? Certainly this quintet, along with some solid satiric support from Wedding Crashers cad Vince Vaughn, and a dash of supplemental slapstick from Swingers pal Jon Favreau, could create a clever, comic Yuletide gem, right? They’ve even got Seth “The King of Kong” Gordon on their side, steering the material toward some edgier environs. And yet, with all this potential talent on tap, Four Christmases ends up a wasted, worthless excuse for holiday humor.
Unmarried yup couple Brad and Kate certainly enjoys their Christmases away from the family. Every year, they make up elaborate stories about charity work and traveling to unfriendly climes so they can get out of the mandatory Noel get-togethers. Instead, they head to exotic locales like Cancun and Fiji and enjoy a particularly cool Yule. But when San Francisco International gets fogged in, and a live news report exposes the pair’s plans, its not long before the cellphone starts to ring. Before long, the duo are heading out to visit the relatives. For Brad, that means seeing his redolent, redneck Dad (and cruel cage fighter brothers) and his May to December Mom (she married his best friend). For Kate, it’s confronting her sister’s raging biology, and a distant father who may just hold the key to her future - with or without Brad.
Reese Witherspoon, Vince Vaughn, Robert Duvall, Jon Favreau, Mary Steenburgen, Kristin Chenoweth
(New Line Cinema; US theatrical: 26 Nov 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 26 Nov 2008 (General release); 2008)
Flailing like a dying fish out of water and eventually smelling just as fetid, Four Christmases is stiflingly unfunny. It’s rotten mistletoe over a condemned homestead’s archway. In fact, it’s such an unbridled waste, such a horrifying amalgamation of inept attempted laughs that you wonder what the capable cast was thinking during the filming of certain scenes. Did Favreau and Vaughn really believe the WWE-inspired physical comedy ‘smackdown’ was going to elicit anything other than groans? Was seeing Steenburgen in full Jesus freak mode (alongside a scruffy looking Dwight Yoakim as her pastor beau) supposed to be a legitimate reason to laugh. Does referring to Witherspoon’s character as “Cootie Kate” make the sequence silly, or just stupid? And how far can the whole “kids are craven and evil” thing be pushed before it borders on abuse…for all involved?
With its anthology-like set-up (we just know we’re going to have to suffer through a quartet of these pained visits) and Gordon’s incomplete directing style, there’s always some small amount of potential in this ‘holidays as horror story’ scenario. But the minute we get to the redneck haven of testosterone and terminal b.o., all bets are off. The scenes where Duvall does his best hick trick while Favreau and Grammy Winner Tim McGraw play Deliverance is just dumb. It leads to nothing legitimate, and when Vaughn takes a fall from several feet, we wonder why his next stop was the home of Witherspoon’s mom, not the hospital. The preceding set-up is doubly dreadful. First, we have to witness our heroine fighting off brats in a backyard moonwalk, only to have that topped by a horrid Nativity pageant where Vaughn does his worst Richard Burton meets a muppet overacting.
At this point, we pray for some manner of respite from all the idiocy. On the plus side, Four Christmases delivers. On the downside, this is done by giving Spacek and her cougar character little or nothing to do. Instead of milking the possibilities of an older woman/younger man ideal, Vaughn gets all the good lines. Rattling them off like he’s making them up on the spot, we’re actually happy when Favreau turns up again to whip his brother’s butt in the board game Taboo. By the time we arrive at the Voight residence, we’re as ready as the characters to call this experience over. Luckily, we get to leave the theater. Our cast must suffer through the kind of last act desperation as inspiration that often brings the entire production to a crashing halt. Luckily, that old Tinsel Town standby - biology - comes along to save the day.
If it was anyone other than the performance powerhouses of Duvall, Steenburgen, Voight, Vaughn, Spacek, and Witherspoon in front of the camera, we might have allowed for how way below average Four Christmases is. But casting an A-list immediately elevates the expectations, and not a single actor meets them. We imagine they can make up stuff funnier than what was in the script, but we’re clearly misguided in that concept. Gordon obviously allowed his far more experienced cast to run ramshackle over his designs, with Vaughn the most egregious offender. There are instances when he goes off on stupid stream of incomprehensibleness rants that merely add up to literal minutes of laughless screen time. He is matched by Witherspoon in that she’s offered nothing remotely humorous to add. She’s the sap. He’s the uninvited guest whose long overstayed his welcome.
By the end, we just want the obligatory break-up/make-up and to be done with it. It’s rare, especially in this current rib-tickling renaissance, to find something as solidly hateful as Four Christmases. If the holidays didn’t already have you contemplating suicide, this sad excuse for something warm but witty will have you headed for the nearest crisis hotline, ASAP. This time of year is already a chore, what with the mandatory family fellowship and credit crunching consumer guilt. The last thing we need is a movie that manifests its anger in strangulated, unsatisfying ways. Apparently, when actors cash in their Oscar credits, this is the kind of crap they are given. Kind of puts their pissed off prima donna antics into perspective, doesn’t it?