The success of movies like The Bells of St Mary’s and A Christmas Carol triggered an avalanche of Yuletide themed movies from producers eager to cash in on the spirit of the season. Every year a new one comes out and for every hit there are a Santa’s sack of stinkers like Jingle All the Way and Surviving Christmas. This year’s entry is Four Christmases, the story of two smarmy yuppies played by Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon who lie to their families—“You can’t spell families without ‘lies,’” Vaughn says—to get out of spending quality time with their siblings and parents over the holidays. When they get caught in the lie they must spend four Christmases, one with each of their divorced parents.
Every year Brad (Vaughn) and Kate (Witherspoon) sidestep family obligations at Christmas with a series of well crafted lies. They usually tell the folks they have volunteered to do charity work in third world countries but instead take off for the sunny climes of Fiji or some other exotic vacation spot. When their flight gets cancelled and they end up on the news the jig is up—they’ve been busted and have to make the rounds visiting their families. There’s Brad’s crusty old father (Robert Duvall) and his Ultimate Fighter brothers (Jon Favreau and Tim McGraw), Kate’s mother (Mary Steenburgen) and nymphomaniac aunts and grandmother, Brad’s free-loving hippie mother (Sissy Spacek) and Kate’s sensitive but aloof father (Jon Voight). Of course by the end, despite their families foibles, they realize that there is nothing more important than family.
Four Christmases tries for the tricky balance between comedy and heart-warming and almost succeeds. In its first hour it mostly goes for laughs, using Vaughn’s fast-talking jive, slap stick and some outrageous characters to keep the needle on the laugh-o-meter clicking into the red. Sprinkled throughout the four family tour are some good moments and funny situations and some sequences that strain to find the joke which is pretty much on par with an average mainstream comedy not written by Seth Rogen.
Then in the last thirty minutes it’s as if someone flicked off the funny switch and the tone suddenly shifts into heart-warming and it’s here that the movie earns a big lump of coal. The edge of the past sixty-minutes evaporates and all of a sudden we’re watching a TV movie of the week about family values. Reese Witherspoon can pull this off. She’s likeable, emanating a warm fuzzy glow when she’s on-screen. Vaughn can’t. His inborn edginess works well in something like the R-rated Wedding Crashers but falls very flat in family fare; ditto his patented mile-a-minute patter. In fact, his two funniest scenes—both mush mouthed television appearances—work because he finally drops the smart-Alec rapping.
When the movie turns mushy you have to care about the characters in order to care about their love lives, and Vaughn’s lack of warmth works against him here. You’ll see the “family is everything” message coming a mile away; the trouble is by the time it hits you may not care.
Four Christmases isn’t a truly bad movie, just a really predictable one.