A film review by Craig J. Koban


2008, PG-13, 82 mins.

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

Directed by Seth Gordon /  Written by Matt R. Allen, Caleb Wilson, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore

Before I get too deeply embedded in discussing the new yuletide comedy -  FOUR CHRISTMASES - I will go on record to say that this film has three categorically hilarious sequences in it.  Some holiday comedies struggle with having a few.  Hell, some are totally bereft of even one memorably funny moment.  Nonetheless, FOUR CHRISTMASES has three…and they made me laugh and laugh hysterically. 

The first scene is perhaps the first and only false meet-cute that I have seen in a comedy.  It occurs right up front in the film and introduces us to Brad (Vince Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon).  He appears to be a fairly average, bespectacled prep that comes across as shy and timid around the ladies.  As he approaches the rather fetching Kate at a party he stumbles through his greeting and feebly attempts at engaging in a meaningful conversation with her.  Kate, on the other hand, is a really vindictive and hurtful back to him, frequently criticizing him on his apparent lack of poise and bad-boy confidence that she finds attractive in her “kind” of men.  Just as she’s about to leave him, Brad asserts himself and states, “Hey, bitch…don’t walk away from me!”  Kate becomes intrigued and smitten, and within no time they get seriously acquainted in the men’s washroom.  Apparently, we learn the two have been a couple for a long time and like to role-play in public to put some edge into their relationship.   

Funny stuff. 

The second hilarious beat of the film occurs when Brad and Kate find themselves involved in a Christmas nativity play at a Fundamentalist Christian church.  Don't ask how they got there.  Since the couple appears to be largely agnostic (I am assuming), they seem to have some obvious difficulties playing Mary and Joseph alongside what has to be the most criminally obese baby Jesus I have ever seen.  Brad takes the ordeal very seriously and wants to inhabit his character, whereas Kate…not so much.  There is a point where the Pastor, who serves as the play’s narrator, states that Mary wraps the baby Jesus in swaddling clothes.  Kate has no idea what that entails, much to her partner’s chagrin.  As she continues to fumble with the baby, Brad completely goes off script and screams into the audience, “Mary…swaddle the child!”  As she continues to struggle even more, with the impatient pastor looking on nearby, Brad amusingly deadpans to the audience, “Apparently, Mary is better at making babies instead of swaddling them.”   

Funny stuff. 

The final moment of high hilarity occurs during a visit that Brad and Kate have with his mother and new boyfriend, which just happens to be his former best friend (yeah...awkward!).  First, Brad’s friend consoles him by stating, “I’m not trying to be your father.  I am looking for a chance to be your friend.”  Brad responds, “You were my friend, but now your sleeping with my mom and it’s a bit weird for me.”  Even more uproarious is when the family plays a game of Taboo, a word guessing game where its object is to guess the word on a card without using the word itself or five additional words on the card.  Brad and Kate fail miserably, which humorously allows them to have doubts about whether or not they trying are in tune with one another.  Brad’s semi-estranged brother, a trained UFC cage fighter and overall redneck, Denver (Vaughn’s SWINGERS hetero-lifemate, Jon Favreau) states confidently that he and his ditsy wife will totally conquer everyone in this game.  Brad is suspicious of such a boast, which makes it all the more giggle-inducing when Denver and his wife go through word clue after word clue with minimal fuse and effort.  This culminates to the film’s single funniest exchange:  Denver’s wife gives him the Taboo clue of “Dry humping on a sandy beach” to which Denver quickly responds, “Screensaver.” 

Funny stuff. 

Alas, these are the only justly inspired and hilarious moments in the more times than not unfunny FOUR CHRISTMASES.  Howard Hawks once famously stated that the key to a great film was that it needed to have three great scenes and no bad ones.  That is only partially true with this holiday comedy: it does have three knee-slappingly funny moments, but it is surrounded by too many other occurrences where the jokes and pratfalls fall fairly flat.  Beyond the lack of overall merriment in the film, FOUR CHRISTMASES suffers from having a far too safe approach.  Considering the overall premise of the film, this comedy could have been more memorable if it had a bit of a darker and more sarcastic edge, notwithstanding the fact that the script tacks on a needlessly sentimental and warm-hearted sub-plot about the couple becoming better people, which rings a bit false. 

At least the premise is interesting, but it’s just a small shame that the film never takes it to satisfyingly comedic crescendos.  FOUR CHRISTMASES’ set-up is simple:  After that great introductory scene with Brad and Kate, we see them ruthlessly planning their long-awaited X-mas trek to Fiji.  What’s really tricky, though, is coming up with the necessary and plausible false explanation to both sets of parents as to why they will be unable to visit them.  Being absolute Scrooges at every pore, Kate and Brad call up each of their parents and…well…flat out lie to them (after all, as Brad explains, you can’t spell “families” without “lies”).  However, trouble finds the couple when they try to board their airline and find out that most flights have been cancelled.  Even worse, a pesky and nosey TV reporter covers the story puts Brad and Kate right on camera to get their reaction.  Within minutes, both of their cell phones go off…and they have some seriously explaining to do. 

Needless to say, Brad and Kate now are forced to prepare to have four separate Christmases, as the title of the film suggests.  Why four?  Well, largely because both of them have parents that are divorced, which means that more than two visits are required.  First up they visit the home of Brad’s lower-middle class, trailer park trash father (Robert Duvall) and his two very peculiar brothers, Denver (Favreau, inhabiting his faux mohawked hooligan with a lot of comic bite) and Dallas (Tim McGraw…yes…that one).  Kate (and the audience) learns that all three brothers were named after…ahem…the cities they were conceived in (yes…Brad changed his name).  Brad’s brothers also have some violent tendencies, which break out chaotically…and usually at Brad’s expense.  Being trained caged fighter will do that to men, I guess. 

After that first trainwreck visit Brad and Kate journey to Kate’s born-again mother (Mary Steenburgen) and slinky sister (Kristen Chenoweth).  This trip builds up to that hilarious nativity scene in that Church, where Vaughn’s rapid-fire verbal wit as Joseph ignites the screen.  Next up for the pair comes a visit to Brad’s mom (Sissy Spacek) and her new boyfriend (played by yet another SWINGERS alumni, Patrick Van Horn).  This builds up to the film’s classic Taboo scene.  Finally, the last stop on their family wall of shame tour takes the distressed couple to Kate’s dad (played by Jon Voight), who seems to be the most well adjusted out of all of the other parental figures.  However, by the time we make it to this point in the film, Brad and Kate’s relationship has hit major roadblocks and may be ruined.  But…seriously…this is a mainstream holiday comedy, so we are fundamentally aware that a small miracle will occur to ensure their predictable happiness. 

I was reading a very funny side article in the recent Entertainment Weekly which had a special scorecard that was dubbed “Holiday Movie Cliché Checklist”, which allowed viewers to tabulate what areas a X-mas film fell under.  FOUR CHRISTMASES hit home runs in the areas of (1) Airline mess leaves people stranded, (2) Decorating scene, (3) A person falling off a roof or ladder (4) and, last but not least, (5) A discovery of love and compassion.  At the remarkably sparse 82 minutes, FOUR CHRISTMASES offers very few surprises in terms of its story.  As funny as some of its moments are, the script is rudimentary and prosaic, and the way it segues from farce and physically comedy and into a sobering and syrupy rumination of the perils of Brad and Kate’s relationship feels like a hatchet job.  An attempt at a serious subtext here seems largely disingenuous.  Now, a more compelling choice, as stated, would have been to make the initially selfish and egotistical family hating couple even more so as the film progressed, which would have made FOUR CHRISTMASES fester better as a biting black comedy.  Unfortunately, the film is too enamored with gross out gags (a baby throwing up is used for laughs not once, but twice...sigh), bawdy language (note to filmmakers: elderly women talking dirty is never funny), unrefined slapstick, and half-baked drama. 

This also marks the second time in as many fall seasons that the great Vince Vaughn has been forced to carry an otherwise regrettable Christmas film (see last year’s uniformly mediocre FRED CLAUS).  As with that film, FOUR CHRISTMASES is sort of thanklessly held together by the actor’s sublimely timed and executed verbal riffs.  What has made him so dang money as a screen funny man is how masterful Vaughn is at playing loveable motormouths that engage in such logic-defying, hyperactive, and mystifyingly spontaneous ad libed diatribes.  Sometimes he throws them out with such a lightning fast speed and frenetic energy that you laugh at how he says things as much as for what he says.  Just watch his impeccable timing in that Taboo sequence and you’ll see what I mean. 

Lamentably, FOUR CHRISTMASES, like FRED CLAUS, also suffers from a misappropriation of its other talents.  FRED CLAUS, you may remember, had multiple Oscar nominated and winning actors – ranging from Kevin Spacey, Paul Giamatti, Kathy Bates, Rachel Weisz, and Miranda Richardson – all vying for attention in lackluster roles.  Ditto for FOUR CHRISTMAS, which has all four respective mother and fathers played by Oscar winners (Duvall for TENDER MERCIES, Sissy Spacek for COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER, Jon Voight for COMING HOME, and Mary Steenbergen for MELVIN AND HOWARD).  Steenbergen’s somewhat embarrassing work her dubiously compliments her equally insipid performance as a mother in the solemnly awful STEPBROTHERS.  The other actors do what they can with meager and marginal parts.  Oh…I almost forgot…the daughter (Reese Witherspoon) also won an Oscar, not to mention that FOUR CHRISTMASES also sports two country singers (McGraw as Dallas and Dwight Yoakam as a Christian pastor).  Wait a tick…Witherspoon, Duvall, and Spacek all won Oscars for playing singers too!  Hmmmmm…. 

What’s even more disagreeable about this misuse of acting talent is the knowledge of who’s behind the camera for this misguided effort.  FOUR CHRISTMASES was helmed by Seth Gordon, who made the hypnotically compelling and watchable THE KING OF KONG: A FISTFUL OF QUARTERS, which chronicled the real story of a timid doofus (Steve Wiebe) who proved himself to the world by breaking the record for Donkey Kong held by the laughably villainous, mullet adorned Billy Mitchell.  Gordon’s transition from reality films to scripted features is not a smooth one nor inspired, but he does offer up a cute inside visual reference to his brilliant documentary.  The real Steve Wiebe has a dialogue free cameo as Witherspoon’s brother-in-law, as he is at first seen with a video game controller in hand.  The very funny thing about this cameo is what images are conjured up in my mind: 

Somewhere during the making of FOUR CHRISTMASES I can sense Billy Mitchell trying to coerce himself onto the set to steal Wiebe’s bit-part thunder.

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