“Four Christmases”

Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon help us make it through the holidays with this funny, gently subversive Christmas movie.

Topics: Christmas, Movies,

"Four Christmases"

 ”Four Christmases” shouldn’t be mistaken for one of those dismal holiday comedies that gets foisted upon us each year, those slapdash numbers in which subpar gags lead, like a trail of stale gingerbread crumbs, to a falsely heartwarming conclusion. Don’t get me wrong — this is no “Bad Santa,” a Christmas picture whose go-for-broke disreputability warms my heart like no other. But “Four Christmases,” which was directed by Seth Gordon (who made the Donkey Kong doc “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters”), has a pleasingly cranky quality, particularly for the way it recognizes that at holiday time, the people around us are more likely than usual to remind us that they think we’re conducting our lives all wrong. This isn’t a “Bah, humbug” holiday movie so much as a “Mind your own business” one — the kind of movie that many of us can use around the holidays.

Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon play Brad and Kate, a happily coupled couple with no plans to get married or have children. They take dance lessons because they enjoy it: When the other youngish, engaged twosomes around them ask when their big day is — the assumption being that no couple would want to take dance lessons unless they were planning a wedding — Brad and Kate reply that they take dance lessons just because it’s fun. The other couples press on ever more nosily with their questioning: Don’t Brad and Kate ever want to get married? To have a family? Brad replies that they’re happy just the way they are, and that they enjoy each other’s company — why ruin a good thing? And no, they don’t want to make babies. The other couples’ disapproval and dismay hangs in the air like heavy fog.



But it isn’t as heavy as the actual fog that ruins the Christmas getaway Brad and Kate have planned. Brad and Kate have been dating for several years, and at Christmastime, they always sneak away from their home in San Francisco to some exotic locale, avoiding the obligatory visits to their respective homesteads by telling their families they’re doing humanitarian volunteer work in a foreign land. (Brad gets on the phone to his mother and, wearing that classic Vince Vaughn poker face, tells her that he and Kate are on their way to Burma to inoculate babies.) But this time, the fog prevents their plane from taking off, and a reporter from a local television station pounces on them, shoving a microphone under their chins and asking them how it feels to have their holiday plans ruined. Outed — there’s no doubt their families have seen them on the news broadcast — Brad and Kate are forced to spend Christmas day with their blood relatives. And since both sets of parents are divorced, that means reckoning with four families instead of just two.

Gordon and writers Matt R. Allen, Caleb Wilson, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (from a story by Allen and Wilson) sometimes go for the too-obvious gags, like putting off-color language in the mouths of senior citizens. But largely, the movie works because the performers (including Sissy Spacek, Jon Voight, Mary Steenburgen and Robert Duvall) appear to be having great fun with the material. Gordon’s best not-so-secret weapons, though, are his two stars: Vaughn and Witherspoon are an inspired pairing, not least because they’re such a mismatched set of salt-and-pepper shakers. Vaughn stands tall, a good-looking lug who’s reached the age where he’s developed a slight gut that makes him all the more human and believable, and his laid-back prickliness is a great contrast to Witherspoon’s mighty-mite can-do perkiness. Witherspoon gets to do more here than be the tiresomely winkly, twinkly America’s sweetheart she’s been playing for years now (in her comedy roles, at least). She stands up to Vaughn, even though she needs 4-inch heels to do it.

And Vaughn plays beautifully off Witherspoon’s slight prissiness, deflating it every chance he gets. There’s a little of Bob Hope in him: He has an impatient, snappish quality; he has no patience for morons. And in general, he seems to have a fine time sending up the vanity of the characters he plays: Here, Kate and Brad get drafted into playing Mary and Joseph in a Nativity pageant, and Brad willfully upstages not just her but the baby Jesus himself. (He hogs the spotlight by stealing the swaddling clothes.)

But mostly, Brad and Kate are partners in crime, united against the expectations of their respective families. (That’s particularly important considering the way Kate’s sister, Courtney — played by a pneumatic, demented-looking Kristin Chenoweth — looks upon her as an inferior being because she hasn’t yet popped out any babies.) The movie’s ending is funny and gently subversive, an acknowledgement of the way life often hands over the damnedest surprises. It’s also a reminder that every couple has the right to forge their own way forward — and maybe doing it your own way is the only way. “Four Christmases” is about the joy of freeing yourself from the tyranny of the family you’re born into. There’s nothing wrong with making up your own family as you go along.

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>