Perhaps I was in an overly good mood before bed, or maybe I was just so tired that I’d laugh at anything, but Four Christmases ended up being a pretty good time despite my trepidation and warnings to steer clear by friends. It was cute, somewhat innocuous, and had its fair share of big laughs. By no means is it great cinema, nor intelligent storytelling—its sub 90-minute runtime shows us only the craziness spending time with the four parts of two divorced marriages and nothing else—it does its job well. The characters don’t evolve, no matter what you think at the end each person is really as selfish as they were at the start. A little dialogue and “talk” about the future does nothing to change that. However, that is what makes the movie fun. We don’t want them to be kind or gentle, we need them to be cruel and hurtful because that is what makes it funny. We laugh because no matter how bad our own families are, they, hopefully, don’t come close to the circus on screen.
Our leads, Vince Vaughn’s Brad and Reese Witherspoon’s Kate, are the biggest culprits involved. They like to tell themselves that they want to stay as far from their parents as possible, not get married, and not have children, because they’d only continue the cycle of dysfunction. Really, though, they are being as selfish as their elders, in the opposite way. Rather than grow to hate each other and separate to hopefully give the children a chance, they stay as close to each other as possible by not letting anything else in to ruin their equilibrium, even withholding facts about their childhoods, like being named Orlando or going to fat camp. One could even say that this duo is worse than the misfit parents/siblings, at least they want to see each other and celebrate Christmas amongst other life events, it is Brad and Kate that forsake all to share a boutique joy that is more of the moment than anything lasting.
The story basically is told in the trailer, our couple is grounded from their yearly tradition of lying to the family, (you can’t spell families without “lies”), and going on tropical holiday. While bickering with the airline attendant, a camera crew comes over to ask their opinion about the fog ruining holiday plans, and the next thing you know their phones are ringing and the jig is up. Now they must stay in town and visit two mothers and two fathers separately, along with the motley crew of blood relatives. They discover their love for each other may not be as strong as previously thought and that maybe family is more important to them after all, whether it be theirs together or with the extended lot. Blah, blah, blah, they find things out that make them see each other for who they really are. But, honestly, none of that matters, the plot is thin at best and serves only to loosely connect all the comedic skits together. It is in the supporting roles where this film shines.
Don’t get me wrong; Vaughn can make even the most inane script entertaining with his seemingly improv-laden schtick. His sympathy pukes are hilarious and his rendition of Joseph at Witherspoon’s mother’s church a knockout performance, but it is what the families do to him that brings the biggest laughs. Between his UFC-trained brothers beating him up every opportunity or the henhouse consisting of her mother and female-centric clan hitting on Vaughn and touching him whenever they can, his resulting facial reactions ultimately shine. Jon Favreau, as usual, steals most scenes he is a part of. Built of testosterone and machismo, his tearing down of brother Brad is pretty hilarious. And the scene with the game Taboo, it being a staple with my friends and I, just rung true—the sequence is orchestrated to perfection with the nuances to playing and how frustrating it can get. The other brother, however, is great too, played by a very underrated singer turned actor in Tim McGraw. He is able to express this sense of vulnerability that surprises me every time once I remember who he is.
Everyone else is memorable too. It’s nice to see Kristen Chenoweth getting more roles and I always enjoy a good Dwight Yoakam bit part. Mary Steenburgen has seen a sort of renaissance in the past few years of comedy, not disappointing here as Witherspoon’s mother, and Robert Duvall plays his crotchety best as deadbeat Dad to Vaughn. Sissy Spacek was entertaining as Vaughn’s mother, a bit of a hippie and out of touch with the times, which adds humor to her use of the buzzer in Taboo, and even Jon Voight does an admirable job with the smallest role of the film from a name player. What’s Christmas without the true meaning of the holiday being relayed through that guy’s mouth? There are moments from them all throughout that got me laughing pretty hard; and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Nothing reaches the level of the opening scene, though, Vaughn showing Witherspoon’s Connecticut sexual being how they grow men in the mountains of North Dakota. It’s a great piece of role-playing that got me interested real early, making me forgive the weak story that I knew was to follow, by loosening me up for some laughter.