Reviews

Four Christmases

Motherhood, Four Christmases submits, is all Kate needs to be happy. The husband, he's incidental.


Four Christmases

Director: Seth Gordon
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Vince Vaughn, Robert Duvall, Jon Favreau, Mary Steenburgen, Kristin Chenoweth
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: New Line Cinema
First date: 2008
UK Release Date: 2008-11-26 (General release)
US Release Date: 2008-11-26 (General release)

For Brad (Vince Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon), the very concept of family is anathema. When they're not talking about how much they hate their own relatives, they're manufacturing fantasies of not having any. Just so, in they introduce themselves Four Christmases as if they are strangers, role-playing at a swank singles-meet, surrounded by young execs in designer outfits holding drinks and pretending to care about each other's small talk.

As Brad and Kate swap edicts and insults ("I want a man whose hand doesn’t shake when he puts it up my shirt" "You crazy little slut "), their voices rise and their performance attracts attention from their fellow bad-party attendees (though the fact that they end up in the bathroom have sex against the wall isn't nearly as outrageous as they seem to think it is). You don't know it yet, but their desperate acting out here is directly derived from their family experiences. Point being: as hard as they try to escape their pasts, well, they're unable to do so.

This trite point is obvious in the film's premise. That is, though Brad and Kate have spent the last three Christmases away from their families and vacationing on islands, this year they will be forced to confront their demons and yes, take their own relationship "to the next level" (i.e., become more like their parents-siblings-grandparents-five-year-old-nieces than they ever imagined). The contrivance that initiates this long day of four visits (each parent has a household that must be attended to) is immaterial, except that it involves TV. Caught by a local news reporter as they learn that their flight from San Francisco to Fiji is cancelled due to fog, they stammer and dissemble for the camera, their "reality show" of an existence suddenly exposed to millions of viewers -- including their relatives, who instantly call to demand the children pay homage.

Their visits are painful and then some. First stop is Brad's dad's place, where Howard (Robert Duvall) makes plain his resentment that Brad now makes lots of lawyer money and feels he's too good for his low-rent kin. As Kate observes in wide-eyed wonder, the returning son squirms amid his emblems of his nightmarish past, unable to turn back literal assaults from his two thick-necked, badly-tattooed, semi-professional-cage-fighting brothers, Denver (Jon Favreau) and Dallas (Tim McGraw) or manage his father's increasingly angry insults. Though Brad tries to explain his lack of spine to Kate ("My childhood was just like The Shawshank Redemption, except I didn't have some soft-spoken gentle black man to share my troubles with"), she's bothered by the fact that he's hidden certain details from her, as well as his consistent wussiness in the face of his relatives' abuses. Maybe he's not that guy whose hand doesn't shake when he puts it up her blouse.

At the same time, the film is laying out Kate's vulnerabilities, as well as her own lies and omissions. If Brad's issues tend to emerge in traditionally masculine arenas (wrestling, TV-fixing, money-making), hers are all about maternity. At Howard's place, she's essentially sent to the kitchen with Denver's extremely pregnant wife, also carrying a child on her hip. As much as Kate imagines herself a sophisticated, professional, fast-tracky city woman, she is almost immediately undone when asked to hold or otherwise think about babies.

This shift in self-image is expanded when the couple arrives at the home of Kate's mother Marilyn (Mary Steenburgen). Here she greets her fecund sister Courtney (Kristen Chenowith) and flirtatious Gram-Gram (Jeanette Miller), and -- following an incident with a projectile-vomiting infant -- finds herself alone in a bathroom with Courtney's pregnancy test kit. The logic of Kate's next steps remains elusive, but suffice it to say that she performs a test on herself, leading to mayhem both physical and emotional. On top of this, she finds out her mother is in love with Pastor Phil (Dwight Yoakam). A preacher of limited skills and tremendous chutzpah, Phil has his congregants praise the lord and give money in hardcore evangelist style, their Christmas day pageant in need of a pregnant Mary, for which Marilyn volunteers her childless daughter.

Kate's trauma is compounded by Brad's ongoing obliviousness to it. Somehow, of course, she will find in this day a newfound commitment both to him and the idea of having children with him (though on its face, given his profound childishness and selfishness, her commitment looks almost pathological). While Brad is briefly distracted by the fact that his mom Paula (Sissy Spacek) is sleeping with his high school classmate, Kate is increasingly like a dog with a bone on this baby business. The more she presses him on it, the more he retreats, afraid and angry that she's "changing the rules" they agreed to three years ago, namely, no families -- in past and future.

Even apart from the retarded and retread contrivances that provide context for their argument, Four Christmases is intensely disturbing in its class politics. The most visible manifestations of trauma for both Kate and Brad are rooted in what might be termed "conservative" frameworks, that is, gender extremes. (They might also be termed vaguely like the models so vociferously embraced by this year's "Republican base," meaning that Four Christmases' ugly stereotyping is either timely or wholly out of date.) Dissatisfied and indignant, Howard and his redneck sons are bully cartoons; Marilyn and Courtney, both Barbie-doll pretty and eternally hot to trot, appear dupes in a system that keeps them subservient and ignorant, but still, mothers. And that, the film submits, is all Kate needs to be happy. The husband, he's incidental.

2

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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