Christmas movie not ringing any bells

Posted: Thursday, December 11, 2008

'Four Christmases'

New Line Cinema

1 hour, 28 minutes

Cheesy holiday movies are to be expected this time of year. They are as much a part of the season as dried-out Christmas trees and last-minute shopping sprees. Hollywood usually manages to provide us with one fairly decent Christmas flick and a whole host of mediocre rehashes. These are not the kind of movies to achieve difficult tasks or to surprise you, but this week's "Four Christmases" did just that. Somehow, the filmmakers involved manage to make, of all people, Reese Witherspoon thoroughly unlikable.

"Four Christmases," despite having the seed of a good idea, is a complete and utter train wreck. Poorly conceived and executed, it manages to create characters that are more disturbing than funny. The fact that much of it is senseless and begs credulity is the least of its problems.

Reese Witherspoon plays Kate who, along with her live-in boyfriend Brad, played by the always energetic Vince Vaughn, manages to spend every holiday away from her family. It's almost like a game to the two, and the best way to achieve their goal is to lie. Each holiday the lie is different, but they always circle the same general theme -- the couple is traveling to a third-world country to help poor/sick/war-torn children. In reality, our heroes are heading off to one fabulous island vacation after another, all the while congratulating each other on their cleverness.

This Christmas, however, turns out a little different when, after their flight to Fiji is canceled, the couple is caught on camera by a nightly news crew doing a story on holiday travel. Suddenly the cell phones are ringing and Kate and Brad are off to see the relatives.

The "four" in the title refers to the fact that both Brad and Kate come from homes of divorced parents -- hence, four sets of parents/step-parents to visit. This is the part of the plot that was a semi-good idea, but in the translation from the pitch meeting to the big screen, the writers lost their way. There is no one to relate to or to like in this movie.

It's a no-brainer that each family set is going to be quirky and strange, but from one to the next they are just as distasteful as our exceedingly distasteful couple. Brad's dad is a cranky jerk and his brothers are loutish misanthropes. Kate's mother and sister seem to delight in reminiscing that she was the "fat girl" growing up, a razzing Brad wholeheartedly joins in on. Naturally, there has to be a sexually aggressive octogenarian, and Kate's grandmother fills that role, but I wasn't expecting to have to hear similar dialogue from venerable actress Sissy Spacek as Brad's mother. There's even a "hilarious" scene wherein Reese Witherspoon beats up a bunch of kids in a bouncy castle. Good stuff, and just in time for Christmas.

If the raft of ill-conceived characters weren't enough, so much of the film is simply one clich after another. The projectile vomiting baby, the is-she-or-isn't-she pregnancy test, Vince Vaughn's entire performance. And taking no chances that the audience might not pick up on theme that perhaps this couple should be more open and less selfish with their families and each other, the writers hit you over the head with it. The film even goes so far as to use the game "Taboo," where you try to get your partner to say the secret word on the card, to illustrate their point.

By this time I was squirming in my seat thinking, "I get it. They don't know each other very well. They haven't been honest with each other. Stop illustrating it and let's move on. They still have to have a change of heart, reconnect with their families, break up once or twice, and eventually grow as people, and this movie's already been on for over an hour."

Needless to say, I did not enjoy this fun holiday romp, but it wasn't because of the bad writing or clichd plotline. Like I said, that's to be expected with these movies. "Four Christmases" falls flat because there's no one to root for, and it's a sentiment that is somewhat unwelcome these days. Cynicism used to be the order of the day, but I think with the combination of the bleak economic picture and the new hopefulness in Washington, people are more interested in honest sentiment and lightheartedness this year. Plus, it would be nice to throw in a laugh or two.

Grade: D+

Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon, on paper anyway, look like the perfect romantic comedy couple. Both have timing and humor, and respectable acting chops to boot. Too bad the film was so bad. Looking over the AFI film list (I told you it'd be back) I was struck by how fun "Bringing up Baby"(1938) was, despite a ridiculous premise. It can only be attributed to the marvelous pairing of Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant.

The story revolves around a dizzy socialite, a hapless museum curator, and a pet leopard, the titular "Baby." Legendary director Howard Hawkes creates a brilliantly silly romantic comedy around a razor-thin premise revolving around the always handy "mistaken identity." "Baby" isn't the greatest of the great comedies, but it is thoroughly enjoyable and goes a long way to shattering my previously held, and obviously false, assumption that I don't like 1930s screwball comedies.

Grade: A-

"Four Christmases" is rated PG-13 for some language, crude humor and comedic violence. "Bringing up Baby" is unrated.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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