Movie Review – Four Christmases

Four Christmases (2008)
Written by Matt R. Allen, Caleb Wilson, Jon Lucas, and Scott Moore
Directed by Seth Gordon

I hardly ever enjoy disparaging another fellow Seth, but for Mr. Gordon, I will make an exception. He made quite an entertaining pop documentary in The King of Kong, giving us one of the great villains of the 2000s, in video game veteran Billy Mitchell. And to be fair, I don’t place the blame for this movie squarely on the director’s shoulders. Watching Four Christmases, something was happening in the background that most viewers likely didn’t notice. Even with my attention to detail, it took me a few days after watching the picture for all the pieces to come together. It was a Christmas movie starring Jon Favreau and Mary Steenburgen, and the cartoon level slapstick and the proliferation of cameo performances by well-known faces and…is that Peter Billingsley (A Christmas Story) as a ticket agent? When I saw New Line Cinema distributed the picture, it all suddenly made sense. Four Christmases was an attempt (as ridiculous as this sounds) to squeeze more money from the audience that loved Elf. 

Brad and Kate (Vince Vaughn & Reese Witherspoon) are a childless upper-middle-class couple living in San Francisco. They continue their tradition of telling their families the couple is going out of the country to do charity work while vacationing in tropical locales. A fog bank causes all flights to be delayed, and a news crew covering the story captures Brad and Kate on camera. Unfortunately, the ruse is up, and they must now attend four separate holiday celebrations as both sets of parents are divorced. Brad’s father (Robert Duvall) is a shit-kicking redneck, while Brad’s mom (Sissy Spacek) is more sedate. Kate’s mom (Mary Steenburgen) has become a born-again church-loving lady, while Kate’s dad (Jon Voigt) just shows up at the end and doesn’t have much writing done on his character.

You may have seen this movie when you were young and loved it. Of the seven Christmas movies we watched in this series, it’s smack dab in the middle. Is it dumb? Oh, hell yes. I laughed at a couple jokes, but overall I was bored. It just kept repeating the same formula, setting up obvious jokes, and then playing those obvious jokes out. It was clear they gave Vaughn a lot of room to improv, and if you love that about him as *through gritted teeth* as we all do, then you’re in for a “treat.” The Nativity play sequence was the most baffling to me, a case of human beings suddenly behaving like aliens and reacting to things in a way that makes absolutely zero sense.

Four Christmases also has a tone problem. Because it is essentially four short films patched together, each encounter with part of the family has drastically varying tones. This could be used to the movie’s advantage. How about an anthology film where four different directors handle each part? That could have been a fun experiment, throwing some variety into the holiday movie formula. Unfortunately, the Duvall portion is pure “edgy” humor but restrained by the producers, so it never pushes the envelope and feels like a sitcom. If the movie had locked into this unhinged style, it might have been entertaining in a car crash way. Instead, the picture drops that vibe entirely and becomes a tedious exercise in turning poorly conceptualized skits and set pieces into the meat of the picture.

The core couple at the center of the movie is underwritten, so it’s impossible to really give a shit when the second act introduces a conflict that splits them apart. It’s woefully contrived and not once do we ever believe they won’t end up reunited, happier than ever. So the picture spins its wheels until the third act allows it to resolve everything without the characters doing much of anything. However, the problem is just over now. With a runtime of 80 minutes, you would expect the picture would chug along at a speedy pace, but I found myself wholly distracted & disengaged by the second half. If your movie can only hold my attention for 40 minutes, you should have been doing substantial rewrites on the script. However, if you are just trying to dump a mediocre film in theaters hinged entirely on the season and the names involved, this is the perfect specimen. 

When it comes to Christmas movies, quality is hardly a factor anymore (was it ever? see 1985’s Santa Claus the Movie). Every once in a while, we get something entertaining that slips through, but the majority are utterly forgettable. For a culture that focuses so much of its attention & wealth on this particular holiday, you would think someone would be pushing for a higher quality of output. New holiday specials can’t come close to touching the “classics,” and I don’t think the American film industry can produce a new Christmas classic. Instead, these movies have become references to other things like everything else. Whether through casting or sight gags, American culture is one giant fat leviathan, consuming its own tail in perpetuity. “Hallelujah! Holy sh*t! Where’s the Tylenol?”

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