Movie Review: Four Christmases
The Charlotte Observer
The trailer for “Four Christmases” made the film look as if it traversed familiar territory: Happy 30-plus lovers spend one 24-hour span with their four parents, all divorced, stepping into a different kind of comic hell about every 20 minutes. But director Seth Gordon and a bevy of writers step neatly around our expectations.
San Francisco attorneys Brad and Kate (Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon) spend their yule breaks overseas, lying on beaches in the south Pacific while lying to their parents about doing Habitat-style projects in impoverished countries. When they're fogged in one holiday at the airport, moms and dads see them on TV and call their bluff, inviting them over for a stretch. As they visit, they become more afraid they'll turn into their parents, but here's where the film turns the tables.
Brad's dad (Robert Duvall) is happy in his penny-pinching meanness. Brad's mom (Sissy Spacek) is happy sleeping with her son's best friend from childhood, who's half her age. Kate's mom (Mary Steenburgen) is happy giving money to a rock 'n' roll mega-church and trying to snuggle up with the pastor. And Kate's dad (Jon Voight) is happy with self-knowledge gained after many divorces and much soul-searching, which may finally reunite him with his kids.
Whatever we think of these people, they're comfortable in their own skins. Even Brad's lump of a brother (Jon Favreau), who plays the funniest word-association scene I can remember with his boorish wife, is happy filling his home with kids and competing in unpaid Ultimate Fighting Championships. The only people who aren't happy are Brad and Kate, who are drifting apart because he refuses to consider the marriage and parenthood that begin to appeal to her.
You see where this is headed. Even though children in the film are portrayed as whiny, disobedient, unappreciative demons given to projectile vomiting without warning, no woman's life (and perhaps no man's) can be full without them. The film trots out the usual middlebrow relationship agenda, but the laughs along the way are delivered quickly and consistently. (One of my favorite lines: “You can't spell ‘families' without ‘lies.'”)
As usually happens when more than two writers stick their fingers into a screenplay, depth of character goes out the window. Because all four parents are played by Oscar-winners with strong personalities, though, we enjoy our superficial time with them. (Witherspoon has a golden statue, too. This movie must have more Academy Award winners in it than any other 2008 release.)
Vaughn delivers every line with his usual deadpan glibness, which suits the part. But I smiled as I watched the big-bellied, multi-chinned actor connecting with the porcelain, model-thin Witherspoon. Can anyone imagine such casting in an American romantic comedy with the sexes reversed?