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.