Christmas movies seem to be a dying breed. For every Elf or Bad Santa we get a Christmas with the Kranks or Deck the Halls. Sure, we did have Fred Claus, which I enjoyed in spite of myself, but beyond these, there have been very few Christmas movies over the past few years. It is almost like Hollywood has no interest in producing them outside of one or two token releases each year. This year's first offering is not so much a Christmas film so much as it is a relationship movie that is set during the Christmas season. As such it is mediocre on both counts, a holiday movie and a relationship movie. Is it worth seeing? Maybe. A noncommittal answer to be certain, but one that is perfect for such a middling movie as this.
On one hand Four Christmases aspires to the manic comedy of the inspired National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation while it also seeks to provide a different take on the tried and true romantic comedy formula, a la The Break-Up (which also happens to be a Vince Vaughn flick). The problem is that while the film approaches its material in an earnest-seeming manner, it fails to really dig into the funny or the dramatic, leaving a film that lacks high-level humor or heart to make either aspiration work all that well.
At the center of Four Christmases is the relationship of Brad (Vince Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon). The story kicks off with what seems to be a traditional rom-com meet-cute, but turns out to be decidedly less so than was initially suspected. We jump into their relationship at a stage where they are steaming towards a crossroads they do not see coming.
It is the Christmas season, a time of the year where the happily unmarried couple does all that they can to avoid their respective families. They accomplish this by lying to them and flying off to some tropical locale, this time Fiji. Unfortunately, fog grounds all flights and they are forced into, you guessed it, spending time on Christmas with their parents, who happen to be divorced, hence the four Christmases of the title.
Rather than build the Christmas spirit within our happy couple, each successive familial visit serves to put their relationship under the proverbial microscope. You see, these two are in a perpetual state of arrested development, adults who still treat their relationship as if they are teenagers. There is not necessarily anything wrong with that, but it stunts their development as adults and prevents them from truly being a couple who know everything about each other, instead content to rest on the surface details they mistake for depth.
Wow, now that actually sounds like a movie I'd like to see. It's too bad that the four-man writing team chose to go the quick and easy route rather than mining the high concept for all it is worth. The story plays out in predictable fashion, anyone who has seen a few romantic comedies will see where this one is going, but will likely be disappointed in the way it plays out.
There are laughs to be had, but they mainly come from the supporting cast. Long time friend of Vaughn, Jon Favreau is humorous as Brad's UFC fighter brother, Denver. Kristen Chenoweth displays plenty of cleavage while dispensing sage advise and showing just why she works so well on Pushing Daisies. This brings up another point, the collective talent in this cast is impressive, with a quality script this could have been one for the ages. In addition to those already mentioned, the cast also includes Robert Duvall, Mary Steenburgen, Sissy Spacek, Jon Voight, Dwight Yoakam, and Tim McGraw.
Bottomline. Fortunately, the movie does not overplay its predictable hand. The story does not spread itself out, playing in a mercifully brief 80-minutes. Yes, there are laughs and a few moments that threaten to bring meaning to this fictional universe's heightened reality (which means this is completely unreal film with situations that could only happen in a movie). It could be worse, but it is by no means a must see.