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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


What would the holidays be without a wacky yuletide comedy? Ever since Macauley Culkin slapped on aftershave and screamed in the blockbuster Home Alone, Hollywood has churned out Christmas comedies on a yearly basis, ranging from the great (Elf) to the mediocre (Fred Claus) to the downright horrific (Christmas with the Kranks). This year's model is Four Christmases, which boasts one of the most impressive casts ever assembled to make a movie that is, at best, mildly amusing.

Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon play Brad and Kate, a happily unmarried couple with no plans to change that status, or to add children. They are free and loving it. Having both come from broken homes, they see no need to risk repeating the pattern and, in fact, actively avoid their families, even at Christmas. Under the excuse of traveling abroad to do charity work, Brad and Kate actually have planned a getaway to Fiji. When a thick San Francisco fog cancels their flight - and their respective families see them being interviewed about it by a local news reporter - they are forced to spend Christmas traveling to all four parents' homes.

That means visiting Brad's blue collar father (Robert Duvall) and his Ultimate Fighting Champion brothers (Tug McGraw and Jon Favreau); his mother (Sissy Spacek) and her much younger boyfriend; Kate's mother (Mary Steenburgen), who has become a fundamentalist Christian after falling for a local preacher (Dwight Yokum); and her father (Jon Voight), who appears to be the most normal and level-headed of them all. In one of the film's running jokes, at every turn either Brad or Kate seems to end up with a child in their hands, which only makes them realize how inept they are with kids. Yet it also sparks something in Kate, who decides that maybe a little added relationship responsibility wouldn't be such a bad thing after all.

Four Christmases is really two separate movies. The first is a character-based comedy with observational humor. It is here that I found things funny. I loved the scenes where Brad and Kate fumble with infants. They get puked on, they don't know how to hold them, and Kate even accidentally bangs one into an open cupboard door. (As of this writing, I have a three week-old baby at home, so I'll admit that their attempts to figure things out were slightly relatable.) Some of the stuff with Brad's father is funny too. Robert Duvall doesn’t do comedy often, but like any great actor, he tries to find some reality in it. His portrayal of a bitter working-class father who passes his insecurities onto his sons is one of the best parts of the film. More than anyone, he makes you understand why Brad would be reluctant to return home. There's also a scene where the couple - together with some members of Brad's clan - play a board game that ends up revealing tensions between people. All these elements work because, while slightly exaggerated, they have some roots in normal human behavior. They address things that a lot of people can identify with, and that makes them humorous.

The other movie-within-a-movie isn't quite so amusing. Four Christmases feels the need to insert Witherspoon and Vaughn into broad comedic set pieces - scenes that are quite frankly too broad for my taste. Kate gets stuck in an inflatable ball pit with a bunch of aggressive children; Brad's UFC brothers and their similar-minded children attack him in a living room; and, most painfully, the couple is made to portray Mary and Joseph in a church Christmas pageant. These scenes are so over-the-top that they didn't work for me. I liked the picture a lot better when it was character- and situation-based than I did when it was engaging in sequences of forced wackiness. The actors - especially Vaughn - mug wildly for the camera during these parts, and the movie at times borders on the obnoxious.

Oddly, the director is Seth Gordon, a documentarian making his fiction debut. Gordon made one of last year's best films, The King of Kong, which was about two men's rivalry to become world champion of Donkey Kong. That movie was a true story, and Gordon was able to find and maximize the inherent humor in it while still respecting the seriousness with which his subjects battled over a trivial pursuit. In other words, he showed a lighter touch in that picture than he does here. Four Christmases has its moments, but to some degree is undone by its lack of subtlety.

All in all, I think the movie is a half-decent time killer. Not the kind of thing you're likely to revisit every Christmas season, but a harmless enough way to waste 88 minutes. Considering the cast is comprised of major stars and multiple Oscar winners, it's kind of a shame that that's all it is. With less of the slapstick and more of the observational humor about how families + holidays can = hell, Four Christmases might have been one for the ages.

( 1/2 out of four)

DVD Features:

Four Christmases will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on November 24. The film is presented in both fullscreen and widescreen formats. A digital copy is included with the disc.

There are no special features on the DVD.

Four Christmases is rated PG-13 for some sexual language and humor. The running time is 1 hour and 28 minutes.

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