Yep, that's right: I'm the guy who liked Four Christmases, one of the most critically reviled (25% on the Tomatometer) of recent comedies (at least until much of the same crew got together for October's Couples Retreat). Why? I wish I could say for sure. It could have something to do with circumstance--my wife and I are both children of divorce, and the film not only spoke to us, but we actually went to the theater to see it as part of our fourth Christmas (awkward titters all around). But there's more to it than that; simply put, I just found it funny. You very well may not. Comedy is the trickiest of genres to review, because (try as you might) you just can't persuade people about humor. No matter how many albums Dane Cook sells, you will not convince me that he's funny. No matter how many of my friends give me the "Dude, Family Guy is freakin' hilarious" business, they will not convince me that it is. And while I can read (and, in many aspects, agree) with the scathing notices that Four Christmases received, I must bear in mind that it made me laugh, and I'm pretty sure that was its primary goal. Comedy is, well, funny like that.
Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon play Brad and Kate, a happily unmarried couple with a yearly holiday tradition: they lie to their four sets of parents (each comes from a divorced home, part of why they're less than antsy to tie the knot themselves) and take off for a Christmas vacation far, far away from their families. "Why should we feel guilty," Brad reasons, "about wanting to take a vacation on our vacation?" The man has a point. This year, however, that goes awry; their trip to Fiji gets snuffed out by heavy fog at the airport, and their families see their accidental appearance on live TV. They've got some holiday visits to make.
First up is Brad's dad, Howard (Robert Duvall), a beer-swilling tough guy who mercilessly skewers his son, with the help of Brad's cage-fighting brothers Denver (Jon Favreau) and Dallas (Tim McGraw)--all were named after the city where they were conceived (Kate is shocked to discover Brad's real name is Orlando). Next is Kate's mom Marilyn (Mary Steenburgen), who lets some of the skeletons out of Kate's closet before dragging them to her church's Christmas pageant, where the pair end up standing in for Mary and Joseph. Brad's mom, Paula (Sissy Spacek), is the next stop; she's agreeable enough, but Brad still hasn't quite coped with the fact that she's now married to his childhood friend. Last is Kate's dad Creighton (Jon Voight), but by then, the wheels have pretty much come off the wagon.
This being a holiday comedy, it pretty much goes without saying that conflicts will arise and lessons will be learned, though it is to the credit of director Seth Gordon (who helmed the wonderful comic documentary The King of Kong) that the picture navigates into the serious territory fairly handily (Vaughn's quiet front-porch scene with Duvall is subtly effective). The overqualified supporting cast is perhaps wasted in their brief roles, but all bring some nice character touches (I liked how Duvall has nicknamed Witherspoon's Kate "Tiny," and the ease of Voight's brief performance). Surprisingly, the stand-out of the supporting players is not a marquee name--it's Katy Mixon (best known as April on Eastbound & Down), who plays Denver's cheerfully trashy wife Susan. Whether smashing their opponents in a game of Taboo (Susan: "This is the one person I can cheat on you with." Denver: "John Grisham.") or explaining away her son's odd behavior ("When he gets to hurting inside and can't use his emotion words, he takes to streaking"), she's a scream.
Considering the reports of on-set friction between the stars, they are a surprisingly sharp on-screen comedy team; the picture's opening fake-out is a good one, and their duet scenes have a nice, fast energy to them. Vaughn, however, is the film's determining factor, comedy-wise; it's a Vince Vaughn movie, and if you find him irresistibly funny (as I do), you'll probably have at least a passably good time. Sure, he's continuing to basically play himself in everything, but it's a well-developed comic persona, and this story plays to his strength (reactive comedy). His interactions with Daryll, the friend-turned-stepdad, are priceless (he's played by Patrick Van Horn, so when Favreau turns back up, it's a little Swingers reunion), and his actorly analysis and stage preening as Joseph in the pageant are also quite funny (particularly his post-mortem comparison of himself to Celine Dion). He's good throughout the picture, whether with a throwaway line (when Kate's inquiry at the airport about tickets on a "sister airline" is rebuffed, he follows up: "Do you have a cousin airline? Maybe an airline that your airline's felt up before?") or a major comic sequence (like the failed installation of Howard's satellite dish, which is a well-executed piece of Rube Goldbergian slapstick).
This is not to say that every comic beat plays; I would have no objection to a moratorium on the screen's dirty grannies, and inappropriate, uncomfortable PDA is a comic well that the film visits too many times (and one time more in the deleted scenes). But Four Christmases is basically harmless--it's fast-paced, thankfully short (it clocks in at under 90 minutes), frequently funny, and modestly heartwarming. It gets the job done.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
Four Christmases arrives on Blu-ray in a two disc set: the 25GB Blu-ray disc, and a second digital copy disc for mobile devices.
New Line's 1080p/VC-1 transfer is crisp and sparkling, boasting lovely color saturation and first-rate contrast. Skin tones are good and details are, for the most part, excellent (I hadn't noticed Witherspoon's cheek freckles before this viewing). Sporadic artifacting and a hint of DNR don't spoil the otherwise top-shelf video presentation.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix is a bit of a disappointment. To be sure, it's the kind of dialogue-heavy comedy that usually results in a front-and-center audio presentation, and the dialogue clarity and levels are quite good. But there's not much in the way of separation or immersion in the film's occasional active environments--the opening nightclub scene, for example, is surprisingly bereft of much in the way of surround activity.
As the standard-def DVD release of Four Christmases is movie-only, the film's bonus features are Blu-ray exclusive, though they're awfully underwhelming. "Four Christmases: Holiday Moments" (10:50) and "HBO First Look: Four Christmases- Behind the Madness" (13:02) are both standard, fluffy promo pieces, with uninspired cast and crew interviews and behind-the-scenes footage. I held out hope for "Seven Layer Holiday Meals in a Flash" (10:18), which teams scene-stealer Mixon (in character, no less) with "celebrity chef Paula Deen," but the results are awkward and unfunny. There are, however, some solid laughs in the Gag Reel (2:34) and the seven Deleted Scenes (8:21 total); some of the exclusions are understandable, but the alternate ending and the additional scene at Spacek's house should have made the cut.
The disc is also BD-Live enabled, and perhaps a more patient (and interested) party than myself will be able to navigate Warner BD's buggy interface to view "Paula Deen & Katy Mixon Unleased Outtaks" and "Favorite Christmas Memories." Personally, I gave up after about a half hour of trying.
A couple of months back, I found myself writing a favorable review of the panned Harold Ramis comedy Year One--well, at least it was favorable compared to the scathing notices that made up the bulk of that picture's reviews. I can explain my affection for Four Christmases with no greater ease than I can my charity towards that film; all I can say is that Vince Vaughn makes me laugh, and I'll forgive a lot of the movie's flaws in light of the moments of comic pleasure it contains.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.