Film Review: Four Christmases

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The misanthropic Christmas movie has become a holiday staple thanks to film executives who misread the success of "Bad Santa." This season it falls to Warner Bros.' "Four Christmases" to deliver a quadruple dose of dysfunctional family hijinks to genuinely dispiriting results. Bad enough to create one of the most joyless Christmas movies ever, but then to go for an unearned feel-good ending adds insult to injury.

A remarkably large name cast ensures opening-weekend interest. By the time Christmas arrives, boxoffice numbers probably will hit middle range.

A well-heeled, unmarried San Francisco couple cheerfully escapes their extended families each Christmas by slipping away to tropical vacations disguised as charity missions abroad. But Brad (Vince Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon) get tripped up at the airport because of bad weather and a TV camera crew that reveals their whereabouts to the entire city.

This necessitates a single day of holiday "festivities" with all four divorced parents. The couple trudges through these visits with a glumness that suits any exposure to such uncouth vulgarians, siblings with a brood of nasty kids and a vomiting baby. More unbelievable than their kinship to people so estranged from their own sensibilities and values is the fact that neither one has ever met the other's Bay Area parents despite living together for several years!

The cheerless stop-overs revive adolescent wounds, forgotten slights and the all-around horrors of family life, thus straining the binding ties of the formerly happy couple. Not to mention the revelation of their childhood names, each hitherto unknown to the other.

Brad's dad (Robert Duvall) and grown (biologically, not emotionally) brothers (Jon Favreau, Tim McGraw) are homespun meatheads who would rather cuss and wrestle than embrace. Kate's mother (Mary Steenburgen) is in the thrall of a high-tech preacher (Dwight Yoakam), while her sister (Kristin Chenoweth) is making do with her life as a mom and ex-high school slut.

Brad's mother (Sissy Spacek) is shacked up with a boyhood playmate, which inflicts extreme discomfort on Brad. Kate's dad (Jon Voight) is ... well, he shows up late and is given no rottenness to play so his misdeeds apparently belong in the past.

Thus a cast that collectively has earned 18 Oscar nominations with five wins is assembled for a script that probably would have been better served by unknowns. At least the slapstick fights, pratfalls and regurgitation might have come off as a spoof of a Sundance dysfunctional family film. The approach by all supporting actors save for Voight is an exaggeration belonging more to the world of cartoons.

The script by the writing teams of Matt R. Allen & Caleb Wilson and Jon Lucas & Scott Moore essentially situates Hollywood cliches about Southern rednecks incongruously within the tony Bay Area. All homesteads are fussy, sometimes opulent affairs that don't mesh with the seeming lack of earning potential by any parents or siblings. For director Seth Gordon, who received good notices for his documentary "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters," "Four Christmases" represents a less-than-auspicious feature debut.
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