Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon play Brad and Kate, a happily unmarried couple with a yearly holiday tradition: they lie to their four sets of parents (each comes from a divorced home, part of why they’re less than antsy to tie the knot themselves) and take off for a Christmas vacation far, far away from their families. “Why should we feel guilty,” Brad reasons, “about wanting to take a vacation on our vacation?” The man has a point. This year, however, that goes awry; their trip to Fiji gets snuffed out by heavy fog at the airport, and their families see their accidental appearance on live TV. They’ve got some holiday visits to make.
First up is Brad’s dad, Howard (Robert Duvall), a beer-swilling tough guy who mercilessly skewers his son, with the help of Brad’s cage-fighting brothers Denver (Jon Favreau) and Dallas (Tim McGraw)—all were named after the city where they were conceived (Kate is shocked to discover Brad’s real name is Orlando). Next is Kate’s mom Marilyn (Mary Steenburgen), who lets some of the skeletons out of Kate’s closet before dragging them to her church’s Christmas pageant, where the pair end up standing in for Mary and Joseph. Brad’s mom, Paula (Sissy Spacek), is the next stop; she’s agreeable enough, but Brad still hasn’t quite coped with the fact that she’s now married to his childhood friend. Last is Kate’s dad Creighton (Jon Voight), but by then, the wheels have pretty much come off the wagon.
This being a holiday comedy, it pretty much goes without saying that conflicts will arise and lessons will be learned, though it is to the credit of director Seth Gordon (who helmed the wonderful comic documentary The King of Kong) that the picture navigates into the serious territory fairly handily (Vaughn’s quiet front-porch scene with Duvall is subtly effective). The overqualified supporting cast is perhaps wasted in their brief roles, but all bring some nice character touches (I liked how Duvall has nicknamed Witherspoon’s Kate “Tiny,” and the ease of Voight’s brief performance). Surprisingly, the stand-out of the supporting players is not a marquee name—it’s Katy Mixon (best known as April on Eastbound & Down), who plays Denver’s cheerfully trashy wife Susan. Whether smashing their opponents in a game of Taboo (Susan: “This is the one person I can cheat on you with.” Denver: “John Grisham.”) or explaining away her son’s odd behavior (“When he gets to hurting inside and can’t use his emotion words, he takes to streaking”), she’s a scream.
Considering the reports of on-set friction between the stars, they are a surprisingly sharp on-screen comedy team; the picture’s opening fake-out is a good one, and their duet scenes have a nice, fast energy to them. Vaughn, however, is the film’s determining factor, comedy-wise; it’s a Vince Vaughn movie, and if you find him irresistibly funny (as I do), you’ll probably have at least a passably good time. Sure, he’s continuing to basically play himself in everything, but it’s a well-developed comic persona, and this story plays to his strength (reactive comedy). His interactions with Daryll, the friend-turned-stepdad, are priceless (he’s played by Patrick Van Horn, so when Favreau turns back up, it’s a little Swingers reunion), and his actorly analysis and stage preening as Joseph in the pageant are also quite funny (particularly his post-mortem comparison of himself to Celine Dion). He’s good throughout the picture, whether with a throwaway line (when Kate’s inquiry at the airport about tickets on a “sister airline” is rebuffed, he follows up: “Do you have a cousin airline? Maybe an airline that your airline’s felt up before?”) or a major comic sequence (like the failed installation of Howard’s satellite dish, which is a well-executed piece of Rube Goldbergian slapstick).
This is not to say that every comic beat plays; I would have no objection to a moratorium on the screen’s dirty grannies, and inappropriate, uncomfortable PDA is a comic well that the film visits too many times (and one time more in the deleted scenes). But Four Christmases is basically harmless—it’s fast-paced, thankfully short (it clocks in at under 90 minutes), frequently funny, and modestly heartwarming. It gets the job done.
A couple of months back, I found myself writing a favorable review of the panned Harold Ramis comedy Year One--well, at least it was favorable compared to the scathing notices that made up the bulk of that picture’s reviews. I can explain my affection for Four Christmases with no greater ease than I can my charity towards that film; all I can say is that Vince Vaughn makes me laugh, and I’ll forgive a lot of the movie’s flaws in light of the moments of comic pleasure it contains.
"Four Christmases" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, November 24th.