Four Christmases


Vince Vaughn as Brad
Reese Witherspoon as Kate
Robert Duvall as Howard
Sissy Spacek as Paula
Jon Voight as Creighton
Jon Favreau as Denver
Mary Steenburgen as Marilyn
Dwight Yoakam as Pastor Phil
Tim McGraw as Dallas
Kristin Chenoweth as Courtney
Katy Mixon as Susan

It must be Christmas time because the Christmas family comedies are starting to show up. The first out of the gate this year, “Four Christmases” neatly avoids a lot of the easy choices family comedies usually fall for, but doesn’t come up with anything substantial to fill the void. At least its heart is in the right place.

Which is more than can be said for Brad (Vince Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon). If the movies are to be believed, Christmas is a time of enforced misery as family members, who normally can’t stand one another and have nothing in common, are forced into close proximity because that’s what Christmas is for. Brad and Kate certainly think so and have done their best in the three years they’ve been together to avoid Christmas altogether. Eventually, and with a little help from mother nature, they can’t avoid it any more.

For these sorts of things the families and situations are usually pretty extreme and “Four Christmases” is no exception. Brad’s father (Robert Duvall) is an unrepentant misanthrope and Kate’s mother (Mary Steenburgen) lives in, as Kate puts it, ‘cougar country.’ It’s all designed to be as awkward and cringe-inducing as possible. Embarrassment by miscommunication is one of the great social fears, so it naturally makes easy comedy, and easy comedy is what we get. There’s usually a few chuckles to take from that sort of thing, but unless there’s a tremendous amount of inspiration, it will be quickly forgotten.

On the other hand, “The King of Kong” director Seth Gordon wants to try a little harder than that. Brad and Kate are both understandably nervous about the idea of starting their own family, and considering the problems they have at home that’s perfectly understandable. But people can change and Kate is starting to. And if she wasn’t, the sheer number of baby’s shoved under her face from the time the film starts might start her clock ticking. It’s well thought out and implemented and it helps that Witherspoon and Vaughn have some good chemistry together.

But it’s supposed to be a comedy, and a family one, and that means mayhem and over the top, well-executed gags. Witherspoon is a talented actress, but slapstick isn’t really her forte, so most of the workload is on Vaughn’s shoulders, and that plays out as one sided as it sounds. He falls back on his normal fast talk routine and how well that goes over depends substantially on how well you like Vince Vaughn. Gordon and his writers try to make up for that by wringing as much cringe humor out of the families as possible, but with mixed results. He’s put together a talented cast who are unfortunately completely wrong for this movie. Jon Favreau and Katy Mixon are the only ones who really make their material work, especially their “Pictionary” scene.

As family holiday comedies go you could do a lot worse than “Four Christmases.” It’s too sparse in the comedy to be really successful–every good joke is in the commercials–but it’s got some heart and that counts for something. It’s a lot better than “Fred Claus,” anyway.