Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 20, 2009)
Sometimes I think that any movie with a family-oriented Christmas theme and a decent star in it will make big bucks. Sure, there are exceptions to this rule; for instance, Ben Affleck’s Surviving Christmas was a dismal flop.
However, the rule proves correct more often than not, and plenty of movies that critics savaged still made money. Once the calendar hits November, people just flock to Christmas flicks, even if they’re bad. How else can one explain the $73 million gross of the 2004 atrocity Christmas with the Kranks.
Or the $120 million made by 2008’s Four Christmases. Like Surviving and Kranks, Four belongs to that genre of holiday film that views Christmas as an ordeal, not as a time of joy and celebration. When the holidays roll around, Brad (Vince Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon) have a problem. They normally manage to avoid Christmas with their relatives, as they always come up with some excuse to be alone.
This year, however, a complication alters that plan. Instead, they need to visit relatives, but both sets of parents are divorced. This means that they have to make four independent visits – and essentially celebrate four Christmases, whether they like it or not.
Is that set-up a recipe for good comedy? Sure, maybe, I suppose. The idea of the holidays as a stressful time isn’t exactly new – hey, old George Bailey got so worked up he wanted to kill himself! – and most of us can relate to the notion that the various family dynamics can create ill-will. With its speed-dating approach to Christmas, Four has a reasonably clever notion at its heart.
So as a concept, Four has something going for it. As a film, however, it goes nowhere. Essentially episodic in nature, it attempts to provide a general plot when Kate starts to feel differently about her relationship with Brad. They’ve always been hedonistic types who agreed they didn’t want marriage or kids, but Kate’s viewpoint changes as the film progresses.
Why does this happen? Because Four wants to have its drama with its comedy. The first half of the movie revolves around little more than slapstick shenanigans. The first two Christmases depict violent encounters played for laughs, but the third one more fully embraces the relationship side of things. Oh, the earlier scenes hint at this theme as well – primarily when Kate and Brad learn things they never knew about each other – but the third Christmas launches the dramatic side, and the fourth revolves entirely around serious topics.
A better movie would handle the transition well, but Four isn’t that flick. Everything about the film feels contrived, and that becomes especially obvious when it conspires to drive a wedge between Brad and Kate. At no point does the shift make much sense. After three years of apparent blissful happiness, Kate all of a sudden decides she’s not satisfied? Sure, people change their minds about what makes them happy, but the rapidity with which Kate does her 180 seems illogical at best.
This factor ensures that the film’s second half will be mopey and tedious, as the Serious Relationship material just doesn’t work. That’s largely because we don’t much care about Kate and Brad as people or as a couple. They’re little more than comedic props during the movie’s first half, so when Four tries to develop them as real folks, it’s too late. We’ve not gotten invested in them over the first 45 minutes, and nothing in the second half changes that. Because of this, Four is a schizophrenic and unsatisfying effort.
That said, I can’t claim it would fare better if it continued to shoot for laughs throughout all 88 of its minutes. Apparently “family comedy” means lots of slapstick gags. For the most part, these revolve around violence and bodily fluids. Within the first half of the flick, we get not one but two sequences in which kids assault adults. Boy, if that’s not creative bankruptcy, I don’t know what is – the movie is so unimaginative that it goes to the same well twice in rapid succession!
Despite a radically overqualified cast, nary a titter or smirk results from the comedy. Slack-jawed disbelief seems more likely, as the gags are consistently crass, stupid and devoid of entertainment value. We can see most of them from a mile away, and they lack any cleverness – unless you love horny grandma jokes and vomit.
I remain stunned at the level of talent attracted to this project. Actual Oscar-winners play each of the four parents, and you’ll also find plenty of recognizable names/faces in the other roles. Of course, Witherspoon won her own Oscar, and Vaughn is a genuine movie star himself.
With all that talent – and the director of the delightful King of Kong at the helm – how did Four Christmases go so wrong? I don’t know, but it offers a genuinely wretched piece of work nonetheless.
Curious footnote: is it a coincidence that Four Christmases features both Robert Duvall and Dwight Yoakum, or was someone involved a big Sling Blade fan?