Awesomely bad, Four Christmases (2008) is a strong candidate for the title of Worst-Ever Holiday Film. An utterly mirthless comedy about a young couple forced to visit their divorced parents one-by-one, it offers neither warm sentiment nor biting social commentary (it aims for both), no insight about young couples or their familial relationships, characterizations not even remotely believable even in broad comic terms - and no laughs. Not one. Zippo.
It's credited to two pairs of writers - first-timers Matt Allen & Caleb Wilson, and Jon Lucas & Scott Moore, the latter undistinguished but slightly more experienced. Conversely (and unfathomably), five of the six leads are Oscar-winners: Reese Witherspoon, Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen, and Jon Voight. Didn't any of them read the script first? This is one of those movies where you wonder how it was ever green-lighted in the first place, or why it wasn't shut down when the laughless dailies started rolling in, especially given the film's elephantine cost, reportedly $80 million. It looks like a handsomely produced TV movie.
At least the Blu-ray looks nice. There's also the usual behind-the-scenes featurettes, deleted scenes, etc. Going through the extra features, I felt like a medical examiner investigating a crime scene.
Every Christmas happily unmarried Brad (Vince Vaughn) and Kate (Witherspoon) lie to their divorced parents, claiming to be rushing off to some third world volunteer work but in fact jet off on another exotic vacation. But this year San Francisco's notorious fog rolls in canceling their flight, and the pair is compelled to visit their estranged families. Brad's father Howard (Duvall) is patriarch to a family of stereotyped rednecks; Kate's mother, Marilyn, is a fanatical Christian convert while the rest of the women in the family lust after Brad; Brad's mother, Paula (Spacek) is married to Brad's one-time best friend, Darryl (Patrick Van Horn). For no clear reason only Creighton, Kate's father, appears normal and he has a good relationship with his daughter. And he's played by Jon Voight.
I was attracted to the movie for its cast, especially reliable veterans like Duvall, Steenburgen, and Spacek - who should have switched parts, as Spacek looks a lot more like Witherspoon than Vaughn, while Steenburgen more closely resembles Vaughn than Witherspoon. Witherspoon herself had, up to now, made mostly interesting career choices. As a newspaper critic in 1991, I remember singing her praises in The Man in the Moon, made when she was just 14 years old, and I've admired her work in other films, especially Election (1999) and Walk the Line (2005). Unfortunately, a few more career-killers like Four Christmases and she could be finished as a leading lady in feature films. Vaughn comes off a little bit better, but they never seem like a real couple, their scenes together playing like acting school exercises.
(And they must share in the blame. Both are listed as producers along with, interestingly, former child actor Peter Billingsley of A Christmas Story fame, who also has a small role. Thirteen producers, executives and associates are named in the credits.)
Apparently, the original idea was to explore how as adults we tend to segregate our daily lives and those relationships from our immediate families and the world of our childhood. The hip, urbane Brad for instance doesn't want Kate to know his father and brothers are uncultured hillbilly types, while Kate hides the fact that she was a fat kid and later, in high school, flirted with a lesbian relationship.
This awkward dynamic, of adult children trying to relate to their parents, is an area full of dramatic and comic potential - consider the hilarious, observant vignette in Alexander Payne's Sideways - but in Four Christmases everything, everything is done badly. The movie unwisely opens meet-not-cute pre-titles sequence with geeky, awkward Brad trying to pick up glamorous but abrasive Kate at a bar. Each comes off as unpleasant and it all turns out to be a cheat anyway; they're just role-playing as a prelude to sex. We then see them blissfully happy, unmarried, and childless, but their relentless distaste for their respective families doesn't endear them to the audience.
The writers seem to think that simply making Brad and Kate's families broad stereotypes was enough. Their basic concept of what's funny consists of having each family in turn sadistically, mercilessly humiliate one lead in the other's presence. The parents are consistently clueless while the siblings are unpleasant, crude and cruel. The children are all sadistic monsters except for the infants, who projectile vomit at Kate and Brad including, appropriately, at the fade-out.
A nightmarish Christmas with the relatives isn't a bad idea either but the writers temper this with phony and highly predictable holiday sentiment straight out of the late producer John Hughes's playbook. Its fundamental jadedness is most unappetizing.
Video & Audio
Filmed for cropped (1.85:1) widescreen, Four Christmases has the usual high quality, state-of-the-art 1080p transfer one expects for new, mainstream releases. The transfer exhibits a wide range of subtle colors and a pleasing, just-perceptible level of film grain, and the image is sharp and eye pleasing. Audio is Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1, English only, with optional English and Spanish subtitles, and its up to contemporary technical standards without being particularly notable in its mixing. On my Japanese PlayStation 3, the disc defaulted to hidden Japanese menu screens and language options.
A disc enabling a downloadable digital copy of the film (for iTunes or Windows Media) is included, good through November 2010. Clearly written instructions on how to do this accompany the extra disc.
The supplements, all in 1080p high-def, are the usual shameless backslapping that invariably accompanies a high-concept, mainstream film regardless of real-world quality. It is almost interesting to watch standard promotional featurettes like Holiday Moments and HBO First Look: 'Four Christmases' - Behind the Madness to read between the lines of the interviewees comments, where one can almost sense a "Help! Get me outta this movie!" undercurrent. Seven Layer Holiday Meals in a Flash is a pointless extra with celebrity Paula Dean and actress Katy Nixon, who plays Brad's hillbilly sister-in-law in the film. Eight minutes worth of Merry, Mayhem-Filled Additional Scenes (yes folks, that's how it's billed) show how things could have been even worse, while a gag reel shows the fun you missed. BD-Live features with instructions to get there are also included. Incidentally, the glut of deleted scenes only suggests the producers knew the film was in serious trouble. (Minus the end credits, it runs barely 80 minutes.)
This is one holiday film destined not to become a Christmas viewing perennial. Skip It.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Tora-san DVD boxed set, is on sale now.