Let’s start with what makes Four Christmases different from most other Hollywood holiday comedies. (Note that I said “different from” instead of “better than.”) The main characters here are a couple of well-off San Francisco professionals named Brad and Kate (Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon), though they’re introduced as “Kent and Daphne” for the purposes of a gag that’s not worth retelling. They’re essentially happy together, which sets them apart from characters in many comedies like these. Usually happy couples don’t make for funny ones, but Brad and Kate are funny in that they’re somewhat obnoxious in their happiness – check out an early scene in which they explain why they’re not married despite being together for three years and somewhat inadvertently manage to make all the married couples around them feel like crap. No matter how bad things get for Brad and Kate, they discuss their feelings in grown-up ways even when they’re fighting.
It’s good that they’re adults to each other when they’re alone, because they both turn into shrieking 5-year-olds in the presence of their parents in this dully formulaic big-screen sitcom. The plot kicks off when their plans for a holiday vacation in Fiji are scuttled by heavy fog at the airport. Having lied to their divorced parents to avoid having to visit them, they’re now forced to spend Christmas dropping in on each of them in turn. They both have good reason to conceal their relatives, who let Brad and Kate in on all manner of embarrassing information about the other. (Quick recap: Orlando, fat camp, MILFs, cryptolesbianism.)
The two lead actors do seem to genuinely like each other, and they provide a cute visual contrast with Vaughn at 6’5″ and Witherspoon at 5’1″. They’re stranded, though, by a series of lame set pieces filled with slapstick gags – the bit with Kate’s baby nephew spitting up on her is predictable down to the second. Similarly, the heavyweight supporting cast also goes to shameful waste (Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek as his parents, Mary Steenburgen and Jon Voight as her parents, Jon Favreau and Tim McGraw as Brad’s UFC-fighter brothers, Dwight Yoakam as an overly slick church pastor). Vaughn’s flair for comic riffing only salvages one scene, in which Brad and Kate are drafted into portraying Joseph and Mary in a church Christmas pageant. Brad, who takes himself quite seriously as an actor, hams and ad-libs his way through the role. No surprise that this is the movie’s one laugh-out-loud funny bit.
The director here is Seth Gordon, making his fiction debut after helming the best documentary of last year, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. He delivers a nice touch: The subject of that earlier film, Steve Wiebe, shows up here in a wordless but prominent cameo. Aside from that, Gordon doesn’t have much sense of comic timing or inventiveness, and the picture looks bad. Four Christmases is one of those holiday gifts that gives some amusement for an hour and a half, and then is tossed aside to be forgotten after the new year.