December 7: Four Christmases

MV5BMTQ2MjA0NDAwNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTU4MTM5MQ@@._V1_SX214_ 2One of the perks of my job is that we have access to a wonderful movie library–and the experts who run it. And this is what they gave me.

Let me back up. I asked for The Shop Around the Corner, Christmas in Connecticut, and….a recommendation from the librarian.

First, he offered me a Finnish horror movie about Santa. When I rejected that one (and now I wish I hadn’t–maybe next week!), he cast his eyes sort of aimlessly over their holiday display:

“Did you see Four Christmases?”

[incredulous face] “Should I? Is it worth it?”

“Weeeell, it’s Vince Vaughn, so you know. It rides that rail. But it’s all right.”

And with that ringing endorsement (I don’t think any angels got their wings out of that one), I had my third choice. 

I realize now that he was probably testing me by working in from the margins. Start with a Scandinavian horror movie. Then offer a mainstream rom com. If I’d rejected that one, we probably would have found our way to something in the middle of the spectrum, but I cut the process short.

Overall verdict, though? Four Christmases was better than I expected. And in fact, my expectations were so very low, that it felt a lot better than I expected.

Basically, Brad and Kate (um, Vaughn and Witherspoon, clearly) are a deliriously happy couple uninterested in complicating their life–already so full of backgammon and dance lessons!–with family. They try to sneak off to Fiji for Christmas, but when fog grounds all the planes and a news team shows up to interview stranded travelers at the airport, they get caught. (Next time, maybe save the island wardrobe and straw hats until you have arrived at your tropical destination.) They have no choice but to pay a visit to each of their divorced parents in turn.

This is where the exposition gets heavy-handed:

“My dad and your mom, my mom and your dad. Four houses. All in one day.”

“All we have to do is survive these four Christmases.”

Oh, now I get it! Because there’s…four Christmases. I had been wondering what the title meant this whole time, but now it’s clear.

“And at the end of the day, we’ll still have each other, right? Promise me!”

Uh-oh. And let the wild rumpus begin.

As you would expect, at each visit we see the characters clash painfully with their families of origin. Skeletons come dancing out of each of their closets, and Brad and Kate start to question the nature of their relationship and what they really want from it.

The parents and siblings at each house bring extra star power: Robert Duvall, Mary Steenburgen, Sissy Spacek, Jon Voight, Jon Favreau (incredibly ripped in this movie for some reason), Kristen Chenowith (who, criminally, doesn’t get to sing, even though half her screentime is at a mega-church Christmas pageant!).

The results here are mixed. Kate facing down her lifelong fear of bouncy houses feels, um, overwrought, while this real-time game of Taboo is great:

The Christmas pageant scene is also gold.

While the overall feeling here is “look at my crazy family!”, I appreciate that the movie also blames Brad and Kate for being so absent. They’re the ones who look like jerks when they show up with ostentatious gifts instead of sticking to the family’s $10 cap.

I also appreciated that Brad and Kate’s siblings and their kids are shown doing shifts with each parent. Our protaganists aren’t the only ones who have to make their way to more than one Christmas, and it only feels like an insane undertaking to them because they’ve never made the effort before. For everyone else in the movie (and for many audiences, I would guess), this is all par for the course. We realize that Jon Favreau, Kristen Chenowith and the rest have been carrying the burden of fractured family time on their own for years.

I was surprised at how calmly and evenly this movie played out. At each parent’s house there is some escalating, manic crisis, but the real climax of the story hits quietly, in a car, without screaming or slapstick, and it’s resolved much the same way….without much drama.

In some ways I liked this–while the humor could be over the top, the pathos was all pretty real. But the movie also lacked a driving sense of timing. In Christmas movies (when it matters a lot how many days and hours are left until, and left of, Christmas), and in “we’ve got to run from one place to another!” movies, it’s really important that the audience have a good sense of what day and time it is. In this movie, I couldn’t tell. At all. Brad and Kate are shown merrily, leisurely packing their suitcases in broad daylight, so I figured it was a day or two before Christmas. Gradually, it becomes clear that no, this is in fact already Christmas day.

The only milestone we’re given is that they have to be at Kate’s mother’s by noon. So somehow they pack, get to the airport, wait in line, confront the ticket agent, leave the airport, go home, change their clothes, make it to Brad’s father’s house, and do their first Christmas, all before noon? I don’t know what it’s like on the west coast, but here in Michigan we don’t get that much daylight in December.

Eventually evening does roll around, but the first hour and ten minutes of the movie all seems to take place at, like, 2 p.m. It’s as if time has stopped. Now, maybe that’s how it actually feels to Kate and Brad–like this is just the longest, most interminable day of all time. But I found the lack of discernible progression disorienting.

Overall? I didn’t cringe (or I only cringed once or twice), and I laughed out loud a few times. Not one for the canon of classics, but worth seeing once. Well, if you can get it for free.

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2 thoughts on “December 7: Four Christmases

  1. Just read this on Mental Floss:
    4. Peter Billingsley, AKA Ralphie, has been good friends with Vince Vaughn since they both appeared in the CBS Schoolbreak Special (their version of the after-school special) in the early ’90s. He doesn’t do much acting these days, but he did make a surprise appearance on the “Vince Vaughn Wild West Comedy Show” in Memphis, Tenn., in 2005. Peter’s doing quite well for himself, though. He was the executive producer of Iron Man and had a brief bit as William Ginter Riva. He also executive produced Four Christmases (which he had a cameo in), The Break-Up, and the TBS sitcom Sullivan & Sons.

    • !! I’ve seen that guy in Vince Vaughn movies, including Four Christmases, (he’s the mediator in The Break Up, yes?) but never made the connection that it was him. How could I miss those blue eyes and goofy grin?

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