Friday, December 05, 2008

'Four Christmases' good for a few laughs

Christmas has many traditions: the Christmas tree, egg nog, mistletoe, stockings hung with care, cookies and milk left out for Santa and so on. “Four Christmases,” following on the heels of last year’s “Fred Claus,” may be the beginning of a new tradition: the annual Vince Vaughn Christmas comedy.

Each year there is a new onslaught of holiday themed movies, the vast majority of which are mediocre at best. Occasionally a new classic, such as 2003’s “Elf” or 1994’s “The Santa Clause,” will emerge but more often than not these films are disposable and utterly forgettable.

“Four Christmases” is hardly a classic, but it does have several laugh-out-loud moments for those who appreciate Vaughn’s fast-talking shtick. Vaughn has been playing an unchanging comedic persona for several years now. No matter the film, you get the same thing and that’s fine. He’s very good at what he does and provides the film with all its best laughs.
The premise has Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon getting caught in the act of trying to skip out on Christmas with their families for a trip to Fiji. Since both sets of parents are divorced it means they must celebrate four Christmases in one day.

The film starts out with Vaughn and Witherspoon in a relationship where neither has any desire to get married or have kids because they’ve seen what happened to their parents. Early in the film, Vaughn has a great caustic rant explaining why marriage ruins a relationship that is very funny.

As the film progresses it loses its cynical edge and succumbs to the mechanism of a holiday message film. The film doesn’t even try to be subtle about the change of heart of its characters. At each Christmas, Witherspoon must hold a baby and naturally it stirs her maternal instinct even though she knocks one baby’s head against a cabinet and another pukes on her.

Another reoccurring theme that is forced into otherwise fine comedic scenarios is that Vaughn and Witherspoon don’t really know each other after dating three years. This is most awkwardly presented during a scene featuring the word association game Taboo. Simply because this is a holiday film doesn’t mean a message of the importance of family must be shoved down the viewer’s throat.

Witherspoon is a fine comedienne, just look at “Election” or “Legally Blond” for evidence and while she gets some laughs here, the film undermines her performance by requiring her to spend much of the film pained at the realization of the error of her ways.

The film would’ve been much stronger if it had the courage to stay the course of its original convictions. “Bad Santa” was a rude, crude and unapologetically coarse comedy that stayed that way throughout and it worked. Even when it did get to a message of holiday cheer it wasn’t in a manner that compromised its characters.

Of the four families, the first is probably the funniest. Man’s man Robert Duvall has named each of his son’s after the city they were born. Denver and Dallas (Jon Favreau and Tim McGraw) are semi-professional ultimate fighters who mercilessly beat on Vaughn. This is particularly funny after Vaughn gives a speech on respecting boundaries.

Vaughn and Favreau were both put on the map by 1996’s “Swingers” and the real life friends have appeared together on camera again in “Made” and “The Break-Up.” It is always nice to see these two share the screen and their scenes together are some of the film’s best.

The second Christmas, featuring Mary Steenburgen (“Elf,” “Step Brothers”) as a born again Christian also scores some good laughs especially when Vaughn and Witherspoon are forced to star as Joseph and Mary in a Christmas pageant.

The biggest disappoint of the film is that the parents are all played by top actors. In addition to Duvall and Steenburgen, Sissy Spacek and Jon Voight also appear. These are acting powerhouses that are required to do very little. Even Witherspoon is an Academy Award winner, not that this needs to be an Oscar-worthy film, but given the caliber of the actors, you can’t help be let down that they don’t have stronger material.

This review is coming off as fairly harsh. The bottom line is if you see the film you will laugh, it is just too bad that the film holds itself back. There is one very big laugh at the end, so at least you'll leave with a smile on your face.

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