Witherspoon and Vaughn’s Carol Is Four Christmases Too Many

To brand, then dismiss, Four Christmases as a disappointment would be giving it too much credit. The story of couple Kate (Reese Witherspoon) and Brad (Vince Vaughn) who, fogged in on December 25, put their planned Fiji frolic on hold to visit their four divorced parents in the course of a single day, the movie doesn't offer a single surprise within its scant 82 minutes. There's happiness and cheer and more than the occasional tear dropped between shouting matches and withering stares, all pre-assembled and gift-wrapped by the ho-ho-hos at The Studio.

Sure, there was every reason to hope for more. Four Christmases was, after all, directed by Seth Gordon, whose 2007 The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters was a bittersweet, hilarious documentary in which a cocky mullet squares off against a sweet doofus over a Donkey Kong machine. At first, word was that Gordon had been hired to remake his fact as Hollywood fiction. Then, word was that Gordon was doing his home-for-the-holidays movie — the sure sign a comer had gone in the wrong direction.

Still — Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon, right? As sure a thing as pancakes and bacon on Christmas morning. But even there, the pairing's off. Whatever Vaughn has going for him — charming bluster, hellacious timing, velvet delivery, doughy good looks — he serves up times a thousand here; as big ol' Brad, the guy's turned up to 11. In the past, Vaughn has proven capable of lowering the volume without sacrificing what made him; he's rather good in the underrated The Break-Up, as unflinching as Four Christmases is phony. Here, he must have felt the need to shout, just to be heard.

Details

Directed by Seth Gordon. Written by Matt R. Allen, Caleb Wilson, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, from a story by Matt R. Allen and Caleb Wilson. Starring Vince Vaughn, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Duvall, Jon Favreau, Mary Steenburgen, Dwight Yoakam, Tim McGraw, Kristin Chenoweth, Jon Voight and Sissy Spacek. Rated PG-13.

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And Witherspoon's just . . . there. And barely there at that, no doubt a condition brought about by standing next to Mount Vaughn, who tends to dwarf anyone with whom he shares a scene. As perky/grumpy poor ol' Kate, she starts out strong, role-playing as a take-no-shit barfly who screws Vaughn's wallflower put-on in a bathroom stall during the opening scene. But as the movie deflates (starting about two minutes in), so does she. Then again, it's hard to act in a movie that has you driving here and there and back again in barely more time than an episode of a TV dramedy.

It's also difficult to build a character when the writers fail to create anything more than bland archetypes. (It takes forever just to find out Brad's a lawyer; we never do discover Kate's profession.) Their parents being divorced, Kate and Brad don't want to get married; life's rough. Only, Kate's having doubts; hints are dropped early. Then whispers become screams as, one by one, they visit the folks: first, Brad's dad (a surly Robert Duvall); then, Kate's mom (a horny Mary Steenburgen); then, Brad's mom (a hornier Sissy Spacek); and, finally, Kate's dad (a patronly and oddly smooth-surfaced Jon Voight).

If you think one home-for-the-holidays movie is bad imagine a four-pack, only with just time enough for a single sitcom setup and the shrugging happily-ever-after each. The pace here is lethargic; the movie desperately needs a laugh track. Only, the joke's terrible to begin with.

There is, of course, the slightest chance that Four Christmases wasn't intended as a comedy; it's so irritating at times that maybe Gordon was going for ironic, grim, and sad. Or perhaps it was gutted of its best moments. Surely, something was left on the kitchen floor to get this thing under 90 minutes.

 
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