When you go home the first few times after you're established in your adult life, it can be unsettling. You're unsure of how to interact with your parents, and your siblings tempt you to fall into old childish habits. But with a new boyfriend or girlfriend, at least you'll have a kindred spirit to raise your eyebrows at across the table when Grandmother begins to say inappropriate things. The person who is your future comes with you, as you return to the people and places that defined who you were. Four Christmases takes this idea of returning home, and it even seems like it might be good. Well, to be more specific, it sounds like the sort of thing a family gathered together for the holidays might like to watch together: not too polarizing, no hidden political agenda, lacking in violence and crime, high on slapstick and laughs. Everyone loves to see the foibles of family pointed out in a big way, so what does Four Christmases offer us?
Kate (Reese Witherspoon) and Brad (Vince Vaughn) are intensely in love. They've been together for three years and have no plans to wed, content with their affluent San Francisco-based lifestyle and with each other. When a planned holiday vacation to Fiji goes awry, the couple agrees to visit both sets of divorced parents on Christmas Day. With each increasingly strange subsequent visit to their respective families, they learn the sort of casually interesting facts that one would imagine they should already know about one another. The first stop is at the ferocious redneck-esque homestead of Brad's father (Robert Duvall) and brothers, perfectly portrayed by Jon Favreau and Garth Brooks. The hapless couple casually offend with their extravagant gift-giving and wrestling ineptitude. On next to the home, and eventually the church, of Kate's overbearing and newly religious mother (Mary Steenburgen), where Kate and Brad must fill in as Mary and Joseph in the nativity play. Two more equally strange visits to Brad's cougar of a mother (Sissy Spacek) and eventually Kate's sweet but distant father (Jon Voight) round out the hellish ordeal. Will their relationship be able to survive the onslaught of complicated emotions stirred up by family, and hither-to-unknown information about one another?
Each separate family is as stereotypical as one might imagine, though well cast with a slew of capable and familiar faces. The tension arises from their wild family interactions, many of which they attempt to thwart but are powerless against. Strangely, Kate and Brad present themselves as reasonable adults who simply don't wish to visit their families because they despise the way their families make them act. This seems a declaration more appropriate for a junior in college than two established and successful 30-somethings. They profess love and devotion to one another, and seem genuinely happy, yet their families (who all seem to live within an hour's drive) haven't met Kate, and haven't met Brad. Repeatedly they mention how crazy their families are, and oh how they scheme to avoid interactions as much as possible. The fact that Kate and Brad allow their families such cryptic power over their adult lives is confusing to say the least, and ludicrous at best. The magic of Christmas isn't even a key player, and the film could have been set at Thanksgiving or Easter without losing anything -- so why Christmas?
The multitude of writers on the project points to the complications that are evident throughout the script, with even the writers of The Hangover taking a swing at this odd monster of a movie. Director Seth Gordon, perhaps best known for his previous work in the documentary The King of Kong, turns in what might be described as a romantic comedy with very little romance and even less well-earned laughs. The film is mild enough holiday fun, if you're looking for a film that isn't likely to offend, but there's very little merriment or joy to be found here.
This DVD release, though accurately timed for maximum holiday exposure, is mysteriously and inexplicably devoid of special features. Perhaps this isn't the sort of film that excites people to the point where they want to watch a special feature, but some kind of behind-the-scenes featurette would have been nice. The only options available are to watch a full screen version or widescreen version of the film, as well as the tantalizing possibility of Spanish subtitles.
Four Christmases is available now from New Line Home Video.