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Movie Reviews from a Christian Family Friendly Entertainment

Family Dysfunction Takes Center Stage in Four Christmases

  • Christa Banister Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • 2008 11 Nov
  • COMMENTS
Family Dysfunction Takes Center Stage in <i>Four Christmases</i>

DVD Release Date:  November 24, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  November 26, 2008
Rating:  PG-13 (for some sexual humor and language)
Genre:  Comedy, Holiday
Run Time:  82 min.
Director:  Seth Gordon
Actors:  Vince Vaughn, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Duvall, Jon Favreau, Mary Steenburgen, Dwight Yoakam, Tim McGraw, Kristin Chenoweth, Jon Voight, Sissy Spacek

Unless you're one those rare, extremely fortunate people with a flawless family that behaves impeccably on every social occasion, almost everyone else can relate to the inevitable craziness that results when relatives get together for the holidays.

After all, for every seemingly "normal" family member, there's always an eccentric Aunt Mildred who believes a pink bunny suit is an appropriate gift for a nine-year-old boy (see A Christmas Story). Or the slightly tipsy uncle who manages to ask about a singleton's non-existent love life at exactly the wrong moment—not that there's ever a right one (see Bridget Jones's Diary).

And while yuletide flicks like Home Alone, The Family StoneFred Claus and even Elf have all covered this well-tread territory to varying degrees of success in the past, there's always room for four more dysfunctional families around Christmas, right?

Well, yes, but maybe not these particular ones.

With two of the most bankable Hollywood stars onboard (Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon starring as Brad and Kate, respectively) and a couple of truly funny moments that extend beyond those already served up in the movie's trailer, Four Christmases seems to have all the right ingredients to be fun, ‘tis-the-season escapist entertainment. Yet for all the effort the protagonists make to be likeable (especially Vaughn who does that witty, fast-talking thing he's known for oh-so-well here) and the carefully staged gags, the movie still falls horribly flat.

Unfortunately, it's a lack of good taste and a truckload of clichés that end up being the biggest culprits here. While certainly in direct opposition to a Christian worldview, there is an outlandish, slightly tart cynicism that makes Brad and Kate a real hoot in the beginning. So happy in their cohabitating relationship that they don't want to spoil it with (gasp!) marriage, children or anything remotely conventional like dropping in on their respective divorced families at Christmas, the worst thing that happens to these two is actually deciding to visit them after their planned flight to Fiji has been postponed. A far better movie, given these actors' palpable chemistry, would've made them partners in crime a la Fun with Dick and Jane or Mr. and Mrs. Smith and not a couple slugging it through four horrible Christmases in a mere 24-hour span. But I digress. …

Once Brad and Kate ring the doorbells of their loved ones' homes, however, the bar is lowered considerably because their families are way too ridiculous to be believable. Whether it's the hypocrisy of Kate's newly "religious" mother (Mary Steenburgen) in all her short skirt-wearing, hitting-on-her-daughter's-boyfriend glory, Brad's dad (Robert Duvall) who does nothing all day but sit in his La-Z-Boy, drink beer and call his ex-wife the sort of hideous things that should never be said in front of your son, or Brad's mom (Sissy Spacek) who is now dating Brad's former best friend (yes, he's even Brad's age) and pontificates on how great their sex life is (ewwh!), these scenarios are all a little too Jerry Springer. It's amazing that two people as successful as Brad (we're told he's a lawyer) and sensible as Kate (we're told she's always the planning type) had a fighting chance for any sort of a normal life, given where they came from.

But even if the slapstick humor didn't go the whole unfortunate, white-trash route, the dramatic shift in tone from silly to serious also doesn't exactly help the movie's cause either. In fact, it feels downright tacked on.

While having a point is usually a desirable quality in a film, the set-up for the "moral of the story" is forced and even downright laughable. If the clunky dialogue wasn't enough to drive the point home that Kate is having second thoughts about her seemingly perfect life with Brad, the cloyingly overbearing soundtrack beats the viewer over the head. Cue sad, melancholy accompaniment with an overabundance of strings. Get it? Kate's not happy.

Ultimately, it's this multitude of flaws that makes Four Christmases go down like a glass of expired eggnog. In fact, watching may even make you feel like your slightly offbeat family isn't all that bad.
 
CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Social drinking shown plus a reference to "Mom's special brownies" that contain marijuana.
  • Language/Profanity:  A smattering of your standard-issue profanity plus a couple of instances where the Lord's name is taken in vain.
  • Sex/Nudity:  In the opening scene, Brad and Kate act out a role-playing fantasy that results in them having sex in the bathroom—nothing is shown aside from their passionate kissing. There are numerous mentions and innuendos made about sex—both heterosexual and homosexual. There's also graphic discussion of what happens to a woman who breastfeeds and a scene where Kate's young niece is playing keep-away with Kate's pregnancy test in the bouncy castle. Plus the female members of Kate's family, particularly her sister Courtney (Kristin Chenoweth) wear very low-cut tops and have the reputation of being cougars (older women who love to hit on younger men like Brad, for example).
  • Violence:  It's all meant to be of a comedic nature, but there are a few scenes where Brad's brothers Denver (Jon Favreau) and Dallas (Tim McGraw) give Brad a serious beat-down. Fed up after the kids continue to taunt her in the bouncy castle, Witherspoon begins picking up each kid and throwing them out of her way.
  • Religion:  During the Christmas at Kate's Mom's house, her Mom has revealed that they will be giving "spiritual Christmas presents" instead of regular presents because of her new relationship with Pastor Phil (Dwight Yoakam). During the presentation of the "spiritual gifts" Kate's mom talks about the ways she'd like to "pleasure" Pastor Phil, who isn't her husband. Later on, Brad and Kate are forced to accompany Kate's family to church, which happens to be a really over-the-top caricature of a Pentecostal-type church where the sleazy Pastor Phil is treated like a superhero with a pep rally-like introduction and everyone says "Thank you Jesus!" and "Praise the Lord" at the drop of a hat. Then, when it's revealed that the Mary and Joseph cast in the Nativity play are out sick, Kate and Brad are forced to step in. Of course, Brad sees this as an opportunity for comedy, (especially with his particularly short, self-proclaimed man-skirt) much to the horror of Kate, who has stage fright. Later on at the Christmas with Kate's dad (Jon Voight), Christianity actually isn't played for laughs when he offers to say grace before the family meal.

  
Christa Banister is a full-time freelancer writer, specializing in music, movies and books-related reviews and interviews and is the author of two novels, Around the World in 80 Dates and Blessed Are the Meddlers. Based in St. Paul, Minn., she also weighs in on various aspects of pop culture on her personal blog

For more information, including her upcoming book signings and sample chapters of her novels, check out her Website.