You’re wondering: Should Four Christmases have …and a Funeral in its title? Depends how exhausting you find holidays with the family to be. More exhausting than, say, movies about holidays with the family?
Four-upping Meet the Parents, Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon play Brad and Kate, a childless, unmarried, mutually self-satisfied couple who’ve been together just long enough to have figured they’ve got their whole future figured.
With both sets of their parents divorced, they’re agreed on the dubiousness of marriage and all it bestows. On kids: “We’ve seen it play out,” Brad says. “We don’t want to repeat the pattern.” On Christmas with the families: They avoid it entirely, sneaking away on tropical vacations together, and explaining themselves with preposterous excuses about urgent third-world charity work.
But this year, when they get fogged in at the airport, and a TV news crew inadvertently exposes their sham, Brad and Kate are reluctantly compelled to visit, in rapid succession, all four of their parents, played by Robert Duvall, Mary Steenburgen, Jon Voight and Sissy Spacek.
High jinks ensue, challenging the couple’s intimacy, and particularly a twice-quoted assertion that “you can’t spell families without lies.” From the satellite dish installation disaster to the bounce house game of keep-away-the-pregnancy-test to the megachurch Nativity play swaddling problem, Brad and Kate endure the requisite relentless series of obvious justifications for wanting to be alone together in Fiji instead of with their families on Christmas day or any day.
Collectively, their separate and mutual ordeals become a crucible for the relationship: How they handle seeing each other’s childhood-trauma scabs picked, or discovering themselves to be bad board-game teammates, will be telling. Her reaction when his amateur-cage-fighter brothers (Jon Favreau and Tim McGraw) beat up on him: bemused pity. His reaction when her sister’s (Kristin Chenoweth) baby spits up on her: convulsive gagging. Are they so sure they’re right for each other? Are we? Will there be a comedically subdued period of separation and soul searching? Does a reindeer shit in the woods?
You could say the setup allows Brad and Kate some very vaguely Dickensian glimpses of their pasts, their possible futures and a present they hadn’t recognized, and is therefore archetypal. It would be generous of you to say that. And generosity is central to the spirit of Christmas, so way to go you.
Otherwise, like a frenzied, overbooked holiday shopper, Four Christmases has a lot to accomplish. Maybe that’s why it has four screenwriters. Yes, that does work out to one per Christmas, but it’s hard to know from the final result if they were so deployed. What’s less hard to know is that director Seth Gordon (The King of Kong) doesn’t fuss much over development or coherence, preferring instead to let the actors flaunt their respective charms and simply see what sticks. Or, well, the lead actors, anyway: Everyone in that great quartet of parents–plus Dwight Yoakam as Steenburgen’s new squeeze, the preacher/MC of the aforementioned megachurch–seems underused.
OK, fine, maybe it’s ungrateful to say so. Is it not the thought that counts? Is it not the power of Duvall that even a perfunctory, paycheck-collecting performance is one for which to be grateful?
In the annual tradition of forgettable Vince Vaughn holiday vehicles (last year brought Fred Claus), Four Christmases is underfunny and insubstantial, but sweet and innocuous: a random little stocking stuffer of a movie.