The most interesting thing about FOUR CHRISTMASES, and it is slim pickings at best, is that from the dull farce that starts it, it so precipitously takes a steep nosedive into melodrama of the most predictable, sloppy sort. Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon, game and able players as are the rest of the veteran cast, do a great deal with the thin and uncertain material, more power to them, but a Christmas classic they have not made.
They are Brad and Kate, a hip San Francisco couple as cosmopolitan as the drink. They have sex in the restrooms of trendy bars. They take ballroom dancing lessons for the heck of it. They have no plans to marry, have children, or make any of the other mistakes that their parents, divorced, made. They have also have come up with the perfect plan to avoid the angst of their families for Christmas. They pretend to be doing charity work in some far-flung locale, say Burma, when in point of fact they are frolicking on a tropical beach in another hemisphere. After three charmed years of this going off without a hitch, a fogbank at the airport grounds their flight to Fiji, and perhaps it was Brad’s colorfully mismatched tropical wear that garners them a spot on the local news covering the weather. With no excuses left, and no flight out until the next day, the couple are guilted into doing a marathon of four Christmas visits to their parents, each with new a partner, each with a family that is unlike the others, each with its own putatively charming dysfunction.
Brad’s father (Robert Duvall) is the patriarch of blue-collar family. Brad’s brothers (Tim McGraw and frequent Vaughn co-star Jon Favreau of SWINGERS fame) are semi-pro cage wrestlers who spend the visit getting Brad into all sorts of interesting, painful holds while Kate gets the lowdown, unwillingly, on the physical ramifications of breastfeeding. Tears, fire, and the crushing of Christmas illusions ensue. Kate’s mother (Mary Steenburgen) is a lusty cougar sidetracked for a moment into becoming a born-again Christian by her new beau (Dwight Yokum), a local pastor. The physical blows that Brad endured at this father’s are echoed by the emotional blows Kate takes as her less than stellar childhood is trotted out for Brad by her mother, sister, aunt and grandmother, all of whom take too much interest in Brad’s tree-like good looks. There’s a baby here, as well, and one that creates its own decorations, not of the deck the halls variety. More illusions are crushed here, and the violence extends to an ugly interlude in a jump-jump wherein Kate is pummeled by children and bad memories before retaliating in ways that are not strictly speaking appropriate. Brad’s mother (Sissy Spacek), a born-again hippie, is cohabiting with Brad’s best pal childhood pal, and exhibiting all the emotional maturity of a six-year-old when the time comes to play a board game. Kate’s father (Jon Voigt) is, well, he’s there to hammer home the lesson of the film about the value of family, the which the film has so far failed to do. Beyond that, there’s really nothing to his character except to look very good in a seasonal sweater.
There is no spark to the humor, there is no warmth to the drama. There is a tired plot that whips the essence of every Christmas movie ever made into a dreary slog in which nothing makes sense. Kate’s exposure to spray cheese on a cracker and children with no sense of boundaries suddenly make her long for one of her own. Child that is. Her feelings for spray cheese are left blissfully unexplored. The change of heart has all the hallmarks of a clunky plot device designed to give the couple something to talk about other than how very uncomfortable their families make them feel. Ditto Brad’s sudden showboating during a Christmas pageant that he and Kate are conscripted into as the Virgin Mary and Joseph. Sure, he looks good in the short man-skirt, and he wears it with a satisfying conviction, but to suddenly turn thespian as Kate quails, it’s out of left field.
On the plus size, the height difference between Witherspoon and Vaughn, at least a foot, which could have been distracting, is mostly covered by the former wearing very, very high heels and careful camera angles.
At less than 90 minutes, FOUR CHRISTMASES has the virtue of brevity. Unfortunately, even at that length, it still overstays its welcome. And then some.