Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon generate chemistry galore as a couple of cute yuppies who’re afraid to get hitched in first-time director Seth Gordon’s hilarious new holiday hootenanny “Four Christmases” (**** out of ****), a raucous, PG-13 rated, romantic comedy of errors complete with Three Stooges style slapstick routines. Although our protagonists think they have it made as live-in lovers, they learn eventually that the road to rapture is paved with marital vows and infants. The source of the wit in “Four Christmases” is what this pair doesn’t know about each other. They’re compelled to cancel an exotic trip to Fiji and endure four separate episodes with their dysfunctional families. Quadruple the hilarity of the Ben Stiller & Terry Polo comedy “Meet the Parents,” and you’ll have some clue about how much you’ll cackle. The cast bristles with Oscar-winning thespians such as Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, and Jon Voight. Mind you, “Four Christmases” isn’t aimed at children, but grown-up audiences will guffaw at the misguided misanthropy of the irresponsible protagonists.

Although they’ve been dating each other for three years, neither Brad (Vince Vaughn of “Fred Claus”) nor Kate (Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon of “Walk the Line”) have any intention of approaching the altar. Marriage would merely complicate matters for them. Anyway, marriage didn’t work for their parents who wound up divorcing. Every Christmas for the last three years, our heroes send their regrets to their folks that they cannot visit because they’re performing charitable acts for destitute people in third world countries. Brad goes so far as to research his lies so they contain a ring of truth. Our couple arrives at the airport to pick up their tickets when they discover to their chagrin that a blinding fog has grounded all flights. Matters worsen when a TV news crew captures them ‘live’ on camera commenting about their Fiji holiday disaster. No sooner have Brad and Kate been exposed as hypocrites than their parents contact them by cell phone and invite them to celebrate Christmas. Reluctantly, Brad and Kate try to make the best of a bad predicament with no idea that their lives are about to change forever. The screenplay by Matt R. Allen, Caleb Wilson, Jon Lucas, and Scott Moore turns out to be funnier than you’d expect considering that “Four Christmases” is formulaic frivolity from start to finish. Virtually everything that can go wrong for them does, but everything works out for the best by fade-out.

First, Brad and Kate visit Brad’s divorced dad who keeps a stuffed skunk on his wall along with his rabbit hunting trophies. Brad has to contend with his two muscle-bound, Neanderthal-minded brothers Denver (“Iron Man” director Jon Favreau) and Dallas (Tim McGraw), who are semi-professional cage wrestlers. They constantly embarrass poor Brad by pinning him to the floor in humiliating head and body locks while their obnoxious brats climb atop him to slap our hero silly. Kate learns that Brad’s real name is Orlando. Brad’s redneck pappy Howard (Robert Duvall of “Open Range”), who drives a combine for a living, named his sons after the city where he sired them. Brad gives Howard a satellite system, but he winds up wrecking his father’s house trying to install it.

Things fare no better for Kate when they visit her oddball mom, Marilyn (Mary Steenburgen of “Stepbrothers”), who tattles about her daughter’s past. Brad learns that Kate grew up as a chubby little cherub who got shipped off every summer to Fat Camp. Brad laughs hysterically at Kate’s obese baby pictures and pokes fun at Kate’s only friend, a butch gal pal, who sports an incriminating haircut. Worse, Kate’s sister Courtney (Kristen Chenoweth of “Stranger than Fiction”), blabbers about Kate’s phobia of being trapped in an inflatable jump-jump trampoline with the neighborhood kids who accused her of having cooties. Kate relives that horror after Courtney’s infant barfs up breast-milk on her dress and sends her off to the bathroom for an apparel change. While she is in the bathroom, Kate experiments with a pregnancy kit, only to have Courtney’s older daughter snatch it, taunt her, and then seek sanctuary in a jump-jump crowded with noisy urchins. Director Seth Gordon films this episode as if the jump-jump is a giant monster waiting to devour a terrified Kate.

As it turns out, Marilyn’s latest beau is a Pentecostal minister, Pastor Phil (Dwight Yoakam of “Sling Blade”), who wants volunteers to impersonate Joseph and Mary for their annual Christmas play. Marilyn volunteers Kate because she played a tree in her high school play. Pastor Phil summons Brad to join her. A real child winds up in Kate’s arms, and she is clueless about what to do even when Pastor Phil provides her with instructions in the manger scene. Surprisingly, this church scene is played fairly straightforward with the laughs on our couple instead of the play. Afterward, they visit Brad’s free-spirited mother, Paula (Sissy Spacek of “Coal Miner’s Daughter”), who has re-married Brad’s former best friend, collects New Age objects, and bakes marihuana in her brownies. Brad hates his best friend for tying the knot with his momma, and Kate snickers when Paula gushes about Brad's obsession as a child with breast-feeding.

Seth Gordon’s claim to fame is his documentary “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” about a father in the suburbs who struggles to rack up the highest score in the Donkey Kong video game. The secret of Gordon’s success with this hackneyed material is the swift pace he maintains so the gags follow each other in rapid succession. Vince Vaughn steals the show with his fast-talking routines that are every bit as funny as anything he pulled off in “The Wedding Crashers,” while Reese Witherspoon is as amusing in a restrained sort of way. “Four Christmases” will tickle your ribs and jingle your bells for every second of its comically crisp 90 minutes.