Four Christmases Review  

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Buried deep inside Four Christmases, under the weight of boring slapstick, disgusting grandmothers and baby spit, we glimpse a sweet love story and a sad truth: many adult children of dysfunctional families are scared to repeat their parents' mistakes and therefore choose not to procreate. They don't want to do to their kids what was done to them. It's a "choice" made out of fear - and love and responsibility. Responsibility is a big issue for these people which is why they are often successful in their careers. As they get older they may come to realize that their "decision" not to have a family means that their dysfunctional families still control their lives. They come to examine what it is they really want and need to be happy. One thing never changes, though: They have to stay away from their families of origin.

Like I said, this sad but helpful-to-know truth and the sweet love story of two such people is buried deep inside this Christmas comedy originally written by newcomers Caleb Wilson and Matt Allen, then supposedly re-written by Howard Gould (not mentioned in the credits anymore) and then apparently re-written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (Full of It, Rebound). Four Christmases may be a case of "too many cooks" in combination with the need for "mainstream appeal", made necessary by a reported production budget of $ 80 million. That can kill any original thought not coming from Charlie Kaufman. Forget edgy, forget honest.

At times it felt like I was watching two different movies. One short edgy and interesting dramedy and one crappy and idiotic highly unfunny "comedy". Who's responsible for which? Beats me. Bottom line: Four Christmases is Christmas with the Kranks for the Vince Vaughn crowd.

Kate (Reese Witherspoon, Penelope) and boyfriend Brad McVie (Vince Vaughn, Fred Claus) are in a good place in their 3-year-relationship. The sex is great, they are financially secure and - most importantly - they manage to successfully forget about their horrible families. Each year for Christmas Brad and Kate jump on an airplane and head off to have some fun in the sun while telling their families about some charity work they'd be doing. Not this year. The planes are grounded and so are they. For the story to work, a news crew has to be at the airport, Brad and Kate's mortified faces have to be broadcast to the world. That's when their cell phones ring. Busted.

They both have divorced parents which means they are expected to attend four Christmas celebrations with four dysfunctional families. Kate and Brad are so horrified, they even feel the need for a safe word. Mistletoe. During their stay with Brad's father (Robert Duvall, We Own the Night) and muscled brothers Dallas (Tim McGraw, The Kingdom) and Denver (Jon Favreau, Iron Man) we see Brad dangling from the roof just like Tim Allen did in Christmas with the Kranks. After his inevitable fall Brad utters "mistletoe" - but Kate's inside the house and can't hear him. Kate supports him, gives a motivational speech. That's one of the moments that ring true. We buy that relationship dynamic, the understanding they share. Unfortunately, those kinds of moments become less and less frequent as the film progresses. We leave testosterone-heavy McVie hell and move on to estrogen-hades a.k.a. Kate's mother (Mary Steenburgen, Step Brothers), fertile sister Courtney (Kristin Chenoweth, Pushing Daisies), aunts and looney grandmother.

Now the pattern emerges: Kate ends up holding a baby wherever she goes. In this household she also gets to play with a breast pump, gets spit on by said baby and - takes a pregnancy test. Good grief, another wannabe Baby Mama? When Courtney accuses Kate to consider herself to be "too cool for kids", Kate makes an attempt to correct that false assumption, but gets ignored. One would imagine that Kate has thought about the topic and her answer would require at least five sentences of dialogue. No can do, that would "bog down the comedy". Remember the mainstream. Give them slapstick and nonsense, that's what they want. Nevertheless, keep that family dynamic in mind.

For almost two of the Four Christmases we can observe Brad and Kate having a relationship that works. They learn new things about each other and that's okay (even though we would assume they'd already shared that information). It all goes completely downhill in the second half, though, when all of a sudden Brad resurrects his inner jerk during a nativity play and Kate submits and shuts up just like she did with Courtney. I still don't get how they could suck so bad at the "buzzer game".

Brad turns into a complete jerk. I was shocked to see that we are supposed to go with that and still root for Brad and Kate as a couple - happy end included. Are you kidding me? But not so fast.... (I know. I'm not willing to give up on the "edgy and interesting" parts of the movie - the movie I would (still) love to see, feature length.)

Back when they were on the way to the first Christmas, they were expecting their meltdown. Kate asks for Brad to promise her "no matter what happens today, we still have each other, right?" and Brad says "of course we will". It would have worked better with reversed roles, but a promise is a promise and you can count on it with these two. Especially when Brad shows up and delivers an apology and a promise that recalls who they were at the beginning of the film. It may not sound like much of an apology to anyone else, but Kate gets it and thinks it's sweet. She gets him and that's the point. When she joins in the talk about "walking tax-shelters" and "free lawnmowers" all's good.

However, the truth we find in this development, simply put, is this: when you're around your family of origin, you will regress and show behavior you thought you had long overcome. Left behind. Shed. Years of work and self-improvement go down the drain the instant they push your buttons. Once again you are who you do not want to be. You're Orlando again, not Brad. You have the right to be Brad, though. Up to you.

Kate's father (Jon Voight) gives a lame speech about forgiveness and "family", a speech we've heard a gazillion times too many already. Kate needs to forgive him for her own sake, that's for sure, but certainly doesn't need to forget or pretend that blood ties are the most important ties there are when we know they aren't.

A lot can be found in Kate's dialogue. Early on she expresses her growing discontent, a secret longing for something else, some change. A beach is a beach, no matter if it's Fiji or Goa or any beach at home, it's all the same to her. Been there, done that. Her character arc, then, isn't that much of a surprise. We would have loved to see that coming from a man for a change, but oh well... Kate was only a couple of steps ahead of him, I suppose.

Instead of the wacky ending that seems constructed and out of context, I would have preferred to see them come to the realization of above explained sad truth first and then give themselves permission to make any decision that could make them happy. Show us how that miserable Christmas experience strengthened her relationship first. And no news crew in the hospital room.

Vince Vaughn's motormouth serves this story well, it expresses Brad's insecurity, his need to "perform" in this toxic family environment, and his desperation.

If you chew your popcorn (only) while Brad and Kate are with their respective families, and listen to them when they're alone, you have a chance to see the good parts of Four Christmases.

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