Friday, December 19, 2008

Vomit and Mistletoe

Four Christmases is the feature directorial debut of Seth Gordon, who last year made one of the most entertaining documentaries I've seen in recent years, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. And to be honest, the funniest thing in Four Christmases is the inside-joke casting ofKong's long-suffering hero--and rightful Donkey Kong champion--Steve Wiebe as one of Reese Witherspoon's kooky family members. But this is not one of those relentlessly lame comedies where the stunt casting is the only smirk-worthy element.

It is, however, one of those disingenuous Vince Vaughn comedies that I've come to expect ever since Wedding Crashers became a colossal box-office success. First came The Break-Up, which was mean and cruel and realistic, but also wanted to be jocular and fun and hilarious. Then came Fred Claus, which succeeded in being family-friendly but did not succeed in being funny or genuine, no matter how treacly the emotions became. Now we have Four Christmases, which is probably the most consistently funny of all of Vaughn's recent films--including Wedding Crashers, of which I was absolutely NOT a fan.

But the central problem remains the same: as a producer with a certain amount of sway over his material, Vaughn consistently wants to have his cake and eat it, too--he wants to moralize while still retaining the super-smug persona. In this case, Vaughn and Witherspoon play a committed but unmarried couple ("why ruin this perfection by institutionalizing it?"), both of whom come from divorced, comically deranged families. Every Christmas, the couple escapes the potentially maddening family get-togethers by saying they're "just too busy" to come visit...and then they fly off to an exotic vacation together. The conveniently zany high-concept twist of the premise is that this time, an epic fog storm cancels all flights and the couple are interviewed by a news network. Apparently all four families were watching at the same moment, and voila!--the couple is roped into celebrating four Christmases.

All four sets of families are ridiculous in their own ways--Vaughn's father (Robert Duvall) is a gruff  backwoods manly-man whose two other sons still live with him; his mother (Sissy Spacek) is a new-age wacko who is now dating Vaughn's former best friend; Witherspoon's mother (Mary Steenburgen) is a religious nut who may have a thing for her pastor; and Witherspoon's father (Jon Voight) may be, conveniently, the only voice of reason in either family.

The underlying theme of Four Christmases is that Vaughn and Witherspoon steer clear of their families to suppress lingering skeletons in their personal closets, and by suppressing them from themselves, they have hidden them from each other. It makes sense, but the film is constantly hedging its bets by asking us to buy into the burgeoning trouble in the central relationship, but also root for our protagonists to stay together in the end, and also laugh out loud at gags involving puking babies and body-slamming older brothers. And the thing is, I didlaugh...until the gags became repetitive. And I did buy into the central conflict...until it became clear to me that the filmmakers didn't even believe in it. Essentially, Four Christmases is a mildly enjoyable one-note comedy that Vaughn the Producer has strained to turn into something mildly important. But how important can a movie be when it begins with raunchy PG-13 sex and ends with projectile vomiting?

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