Four Christmases

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/26/08 01:25:03

"Silent Auditorium, Deadly Film"
1 stars (Sucks)

Even the most ardent fan of Christmas-themed movies would have to admit that the last few years have been pretty grim in regards to new holiday offerings--do you know anyone with nice things to say about such duds as “Christmas with the Kranks,” “Deck the Halls,” “The Santa Clause 3” and last year’s monstrosity, “Fred Claus”? However, as terrible as those cynically conceived affronts to the season may have been, they each come across as appealing as a mug of hot chocolate, a roaring fire and a viewing of something like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas” or “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol” when compared to the utterly loathsome likes of “Four Christmases.” Not only is this stupid, sanctimonious, deeply unfunny and astonishingly offensive stab at holiday comedy and sentiment the worst Christmas-related film to come along in recent memory (yes, worse than “Fred Claus,” which at least managed to provide viewers with the inspiring sight of Elizabeth Banks in an extremely fetching elf outfit), it is one of the worst movies of any type to appear in a long time.

Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon star as Brad and Kate, a self-involved Yuppie couple who live in an expensive and coldly immaculate luxury apartment and who spend their evenings role playing with each other at a local bar as a prelude to having noisy and aggressive sex in the bathroom. You see, Brad and Kate have decided that they don’t want to be tied down by getting married or having kids--no doubt as the result of having both come from families that went through divorces--and they want to be able to live their lives as heedlessly as possible. In fact, when Christmastime comes around, they tell their families that they are off to do volunteer work in some far-flung local while they really spend their time basking in the sun in some tropical paradise. This year, however, a massive fogbank comes rolling in just as they arrive at the airport and they discover to their horror that no flights will be leaving that day. To make matters worse, their asinine behavior at the ticket counter attracts the attentions of a news crew that put them on live TV for all to see, especially their families. As a result, Brad and Kate find themselves obligated to spend the day traveling the countryside to visit each of their parents and to remember why they stopped making visits in the first place.

First up is the house belonging to Brad’s dad, Howard (Robert Duvall), a white-trash hell in which Brad is physically and emotionally brutalized by the old man and his psychotic brothers (Tim McGraw and Jon Favreau), Kate is horrified to discover that the most sophisticated appetizer on display is Cheez Whiz and the festivities are brought to a tearful halt when it turns out that our heroes didn’t get the memo about a $10 spending cap on the gifts--Brad gives one of his nephews an X-Box right before he gets a flashlight from his less-wealthy dad. From their, they move on to Kate’s mom (Mary Steenburgen) and sister (Kristen Chenoweth), where they reveal some of her long-buried secrets, hector her for not wanting to have children and force the two of them to take on the roles of Joseph and Mary in a Nativity play been staged at the church officiated by Mom’s new beau, Pastor Phil (Dwight Yoakim). Next up is Brad’s mom (Sissy Spacek), a visit that is somewhat strained by the fact that her new beau is much younger than she is--in fact, he was Brad’s best friend all through childhood. By this time, having reopened all their old wounds while discovering how little they really knew about each other throughout the course of their relationship, Brad and Kate begin to realize that they may want different things out of life than they originally thought and decide to split up right then and there just before they arrive to see Kate’s father (Jon Voight), a man who has learned his lessons about selfish behavior and who has now become a salt-of-the-earth type perfectly equipped to deliver the kind of smarmy homily required to bring a film of this type to a merciful conclusion.

If one set out to write a list of all the things that are wrong with “Four Christmases,” it would rival Santa’s naughty/nice list in terms of length and detail. This is a film where literally nothing works. I don’t mean that most of it doesn’t work--I mean that there is not one single element on display here that even begins to provide even trace elements of what one might consider to be actual entertainment value. To save time and energy on both our parts, I will simply concentrate on some of the film’s more egregious failures and overlook the smaller and more benign blunders on display.

1. Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn are not especially funny people and to watch them struggling to wring laughs out of material that would challenges even the most naturally hilarious of performers is unbelievably depressing. Witherspoon is a wonderful actress but she has never really displayed the heedlessness one needs to be a great comic performer--you can almost hear the gears grinding as she tries to shift into a more whimsical mode in films like “Legally Blonde” or “Sweet Home Alabama.” (One of the reasons that she was so brilliantly funny in “Election” was that the role of a controlling teen overachiever dovetailed perfectly with this approach.) Here, she is completely at sea with the material and throughout the film, instead of going along with the silliness, she constantly looks as if she is about to call her agent to inquire as to how the hell she wound up signing on for a movie requiring her to get covered with baby vomit not once, but twice. As for Vaughn, he once again offers up another lazy variation of the smooth-talking hipster-doofus that he portrayed in “Swingers” many years ago and at several points, the entire film grinds to a halt to allow him to go off on improvisational flights of fancy that are so devoid of laughs that they make one want to tell Robin Williams that all is forgiven--his fellow actors all but check their watches while waiting for him to bring a halt to his painful riffing. And as bad as they are individually, they are even worse together--thanks to the utter lack of on-screen chemistry between the two of them, they come across as the least convincing romantic comedy pairing to grace the silver screen in a long time.

2. The comedic situations devised here by the numerous screenwriters simply aren’t very funny. You would think that the notion of a couple being forced to visit all of their crazy relatives would yield plenty of amusing ideas but none of them seem to occurred to anyone in charge of making this movie. Instead, the film offers up one overblown premise after another that seems to be based on the concept that as long as it is loud, crude and includes at least one unsavory bodily secretion, audiences will laugh at it. It isn’t enough, for example, for Brad’s brothers to be dumb-as-dirt types who haven’t yet grown out of their adolescent bullying--no, they have to be wannabe UFC fighters who not only deliver crippling blows to their brother right in the living room, they encourage their young sons to join in and repeatedly punch their uncle in the face. It isn’t enough to force Brad and Kate to take part in the Nativity pageant even though Kate has terrible stage fright (a phobia that she managed to keep under wraps during the aforementioned nightclub foreplay in the opening scene) and Brad has no idea of what to do, it has to degenerate into an endless scene in which Kate stumbles and Brad saves the day by improving up a storm and winning the audience over by talking about how incompetent she is. I could go on and on, much as the movie does, but the point is clear--the filmmakers have clearly decided to avoid any traces of genuine human comedy for the kind of broadly boneheaded moves that can easily be inserted into the TV commercials to lure in the lunkhead audiences that might actually respond to such idiocy.

3. Not only are the vast majority of the individual jokes not funny at all, some of them are so far beyond the pale that even those with a taste for lowbrow humor are likely to be taken aback by how genuinely repellent it gets at some points. While there are many possible examples that I could mention, I will cite only one example of a joke so utterly tasteless and tacky that it actually managed to offend my not-exactly-delicate sensibilities. At one point in the proceedings, Kate impulsively takes a home pregnancy test and while we are not told at the time what the results are, it is clear from her furrowed brow and worried expression, not to mention all of her previous talk about not wanting to have a baby, that we are to believe that she may indeed be heavy with child. At that point, one of her bratty nieces runs into the bathroom, snatches the test away and runs off. Kate follows her outside and discovers that the niece has run into one of those large inflatable things that kids jump inside of at parties. She goes inside the thing, despite having some vague fear of such contraptions, to get the test back (the kid now has it in her mouth, by the way) but instead of returning it, the brat inspires all of the other kids violently attack Kate by jumping on her and knocking her around. In the climax of the scene, we actually get to see a kid drop-kick her in the stomach with such force that it knocks her clear out of the thing. Okay, I guess I can believe that the people who actually made this movie would be gauche enough to presume that the sight of a potentially pregnant woman being kicked in the stomach would be a barrel of laughs. What stuns me is that at no point along the way did anyone--not an actor, not a producer, not a studio executive, not a member of a test audience--apparently suggest that perhaps such an image was a.) not funny at all and b.) wildly inappropriate for a holiday-themed movie. Good Lord, even “Bad Santa” didn’t go that far, though I am confident that if it had, it might have figured out some way to make it work as comedy.

4. Besides failing both as a comedy and as a Christmas tale, “Four Christmases” also offers up viewers an arch-conservative point-of-view that is so overbearing that it makes the proceedings even more painful than they already were. Look, I don’t necessarily have a problem with a Christmas film with an essentially conservative perspective (most of them are that way if you look closely enough) but this one goes about it in such a ham-fisted manner that if the title hadn’t already been taken by a slightly worse movie, it could have been retitled “An American Carol.” After all, this is a story about a couple from San Francisco, that hotbed of seething sin and liberalism, who refuse to get married or have children because it might crimp their lifestyles. At Christmas, they lie to their families by claiming that they will be doing all sorts of noble-sounding humanitarian projects when all they really plan to do is lay in the sun, get drunk and screw around. As they go about the process of visiting their families, they learn that everything they thought they knew about each other was a lie (Brad’s real name isn’t Brad, Kate hung out with one of them dyke-type people and neither one seems willing to support the other when the chips are down) and proceed to break up until no less of a conservative icon than Jon Voight arrives to offer up a lecture on the importance of family that seems to suggest that no matter how harshly and cruelly your family treats you, you are even worse if you try to break away and make a life for yourself because if you do that, you must be against the idea of family and are therefore worse than a Communist. Oh yeah, if you are one of those people with a working uterus, you had better be fruitful and multiply or you are worthless as a person. Luckily, our heroes take the bait and by the end, Brad is on the straight and narrow and Kate has just given birth. In other words, if you liked “McCain-Palin 2008,” you’ll love “Four Christmases.” (Of course, McCain-Palin offered more genuine laughs, but that is another story.)

From start to finish, “Four Christmases” is a complete waste of time, money and talent and stand as one of the least entertaining films that I can readily recall. It is a smug, smarmy and absolutely hateful work of anti-comedy that couldn’t be more blatantly at odds with the season that it is theoretically charged with celebrating and everyone involved with its making should be hanging their heads in shame at what they have helped to perpetrate. This is quite possibly the single worst film of 2008, not exactly the most robust year for moviegoing, and there is a very good chance that it may go down as one of the worst Christmas movies ever made as well. Unless your fondest Christmas wish is to see a lot of talented people in a film likely to go down as a low point in all of their career trajectories, you are advised to treat “Four Christmases” like an exceptionally toxic fruitcake and spend your time watching a holiday film that is a little less off-putting--something along the lines of “Silent Night, Deadly Night Part II.”

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