A film review by Craig J. Koban
2008, PG-13, 82 mins.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.