I had all kinds of nice things to say about director Seth Gordon’s breakthrough movie, the documentary The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters, one of the great documentaries of recent vintage. I have less enthusiasm about his follow-up, the much more scripted Four Christmases. It’s not even that I disliked it in any way. I just had been conditioned to expect transcendent things from this director, and what this latter movie provides is more like growing pains.
Four Christmases is about a young couple with commitment issues who are both products of divorces (both sets of parents have since remarried), and on one particular Christmas they decide to see all four families over the course of one holiday. It’s one of those too-high-concept-to-be-anything-resembling-real-human-behavior high concepts, but I still like the idea, honestly. Another thing that helps is that Gordon and his producers were able to stack the casting bench deep with great supporting players, but even that is a be-careful-what-you-wish-for embarrassment of riches.
Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn play the central couple, and while this is a promising comedic tandem on paper, it’s a bit problematic as it plays. When the couple discusses the prospect of children, it’s alarming to consider the mental image of humongous, high-foreheaded Vince Vaughn astride poor sweet little Reese Witherspoon. It just seems like an unsafe coupling, like a Yeti trying to mount a Pekinese.
This movie also serves as Exhibit A that Vince Vaughn’s comedic talents aren’t well suited to the PG-13 rating (as if anyone’s truly are.) PG-13 comedies feel neutered from the outset, where “Friggin'” and “Freakin'” are the exhortations of the frustrated, and canine flatulence is as transgressive as it gets. Vince Vaughn’s greatest hits reel would heavily feature Swingers, Made, Old School, Anchorman, and Wedding Crashers, movies where his brash brand of vocal diarrhea isn’t impeded by invisible arbiters of so-called morality. At this point, I just can’t buy a scenario where Vince Vaughn spends the weekend with four pairs of parents, two of them made up of in-laws, and due to the mandate of the MPAA he only gets to drop one F-bomb the entire time (and maybe not even then, if someone else beat him to it.)
I’m not saying that PG-13 comedy is always toothless, but I am unhappily suggesting that this one kinda is. The comedy in Four Christmases is muted and generic, full of jokes about baby puke and MMA fighting — it’s comedy for people who listen to popular country. It’s a movie for airplanes, when with a cast and a director like this, it could have been much more memorable.
The main reason for this, ironically, is probably the premise. By definition, the two main characters have to visit four separate families in a movie that only runs an hour and a half. The movie, then, can’t help but feel as rushed as they are. There’s never enough time for the supporting characters to develop in any significant way: it’s just a quick visit, an over-the-top slapstick incident, an embarassment, an apology, and then on to the next one. The segmented structure is all the more conspicuous when the cast features familiar, beloved faces such as Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen, and Jon Favreau, and Jon Voight. It’s like this movie was made for commercial breaks.
So the natural home for Four Christmases, sadly, has proved to be the small screen, in syndication, where its already-brief running time can be truncated and its already-inoffensive humor can be further hacked away by network censors.
I will say this though, I’ll still catch it when it’s on. It’s comfortable. Also, there’s another reason, and I’m not a theater fan so I wasn’t familiar beforehand, but this Kristin Chenoweth you theater fans like so much…
I want to put my private parts there!