Film Review: Four Christmases

A star-studded cast way too talented for the material plod through a painfully rote holiday rom-com.

Christmas movies tend to be traditionalist, but they needn't just celebrate the status quo. From the sweetly absurdist nostalgia of A Christmas Story (1983) to the off-kilter but still emotionally rich The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), to name just two successful holiday-film imaginings, it's possible to celebrate the verities without slipping into clichés, or on baby vomit.

What those and other good Christmas films have in common are fleshed-out, human characters, since what is Christmas but the nexus of where ordinary lives become touched in extraordinary ways? For that belief in either literal magic or the metaphorical magic of the inner strength to work in convincing, transcending ways, you need human convincing human beings.

But Vince Vaughn, as San Francisco attorney Brad McVie, and Reese Witherspoon, as his significant other, Kate No-Last-Name-or-Occupation, have no core to their characters. They just embody whatever plot machination the movie needs at any given moment—and while this is far, far from the first movie to suffer from that, the fact that this is the first produced screenplay by two former Hollywood talent agents tells you how pitifully little insight it has into ordinary human beings.

You see this the most in the family dynamics of the Christmas Day that Brad and Kate spend among their four divorced parents' homes—all of which are clearly within close enough driving distance that the couple can get to all four and spend plenty of time at each, so the families castigating Brad and Kate for not having seen them in years rings completely hollow. They can't drive an hour to see their kids and they're gonna complain about family ties?

That and other real-world considerations never get uttered in the course of visits to Brad's redneck-stereotype father (Robert Duvall) and white-trash brothers (Jon Favreau, country singer Tim McGraw), and to his hippie-cougar mother (Sissy Spacek), and to Kate's flirty but religious mom (Mary Steenburgen) and sister (Kristin Chenoweth) and Norman Rockwell father (Jon Voight, which in light of his famous real-life fatherly failings is distractingly ironic).

Every predictable Christmas-comedy trope gets dragged out like the string of electric lights that is pulled from the wall to whipsaw through the living room: Someone falls off a roof, decorations catch on fire, embarrassing childhood pictures get shown, an old grandma shows she's still frisky, and by Kringle, you could write the rest in your sleep while dreaming of sugarplums. You keep asking yourself things like: Why don't they just leave when Brad becomes a victim of serious domestic abuse? Even a more skillful director than feature-narrative tyro Seth Gordon (whose humane touch in the 2007 documentary The King of Kong is nowhere evident) would have found it near-impossible to make that funny.

Let us at least leave you with this Christmas present: Despite the PG-13 rating, the movie opens with sexual role play and a wild hump in a public restroom. Yeah, bring the kids.