Tuesday, December 7, 2010

"Mistletoe!" I Beg To Be Let Out Of Four Christmases!

The Good: Opens well, surprisingly
The Bad: Guts all character, Previews ruined virtually all of the humor, Not extraordinary acting.
The Basics: What could have been an average Christmas comedy is brought down by a smart beginning that develops into a predictable, formulaic comedy that makes no real sense.

Christmas movies tend to fare poorly with me because I have a low tolerance for schmaltz. Indeed, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (click here for that review!) and How The Grinch Stole Christmas (click here for that review!) remain some of the movies I have been especially critical of. In fact, the only movie centered around Christmas that comes to mind that I love is Love, Actually (click here for that film's review!) and that, arguably, is not for the Christmas elements of the film. So, seeing an insufferable number of previews for Four Christmases did not help its chances of getting a favorable review from me.

So, if anything, I went into Four Christmases knowing I was a bit biased against the movie, but I took my brother because I knew it was his kind of movie. The thing is, Four Christmases begins with enough humor, character, and fun that I found myself smiling. I found myself actually thinking - literally, the words! - "This might be like Sex Drive, I might be pleasantly surprised!" Instantly, the characters were engaging - they had character! - the humor was general and worked and I was having fun. Then came the first joke that had been in one of the many trailers, right around the same time as the first noticeably bad editing cut and the movie took a sharp right turn to Disappointmentville (you know its Christmastime when it's the train to "Disappointmentville" as opposed to . . . )

After a particularly invigorating role playing exercise out at a bar where Brad and Kate pretend to have anonymous sex with a stranger (when, in fact, they've been dating for three years and this is one of their many activities together), the couple prepares to avoid their families for Christmas by vacationing together in a spa in Fiji. Unfortunately for them, all flights out of San Francisco are postponed for the day because of fog. Kate gets caught by her mother, who sees the pair on the news and Brad and Kate are suddenly stuck cramming four Christmas celebrations into one day.

The pair visits Brad's blue-collar father, Kate's born again mother, Brad's new age mother and finally, Kate's nonentity father, all the while interacting with family members and children who torment them and challenge their ideas of what being parents might be like. After firmly rejecting marriage and parenthood for so long, Kate begins to think that she might want to settle down with Brad and this leads to tension between them.

"It's that kind of movie." Let's just start there. It's that kind of movie; it's a Christmastime romantic comedy where the point, of course, is to reinforce the importance of family and help the selfish happy couple realize that their lack of conformity to social mores is ultimately unacceptable and they can only derive real joy from falling into the same rut as most Americans. We get that going into the movie, but Four Christmases did two things to try to make itself appear like it wasn't going to be like that. First, all of the press. If you've been to a Regal Cinema for the past month (or two), you've seen previews for Four Christmases and in their "First Look" screensaver show before the movie, this is one of the movies that Regal (especially) has been plugging with interviews about the movie. In one of those, actress Reese Witherspoon makes a point of saying that what makes Four Christmases different from other movies of the type is that while Kate and Brag experience all sorts of humiliations at the hands of their respective families, it brings them together and they bond over the course of the day, as opposed to being torn apart by that.

Ms. Witherspoon: I hate it when celebrities lie to me! Far from being as reassuring and different as the star claims, the day is not about Kate and Brad comforting one another and sticking with one another through the hells that are their families. Kate abandons Brad to be beaten up by his brothers and nephews, never using their safe escape word ("Mistletoe!") to help him, instead expecting he might be able to do that while having the crap kicked out of him by his family, as she watches. Similarly, Brad leaves Kate to her own devices while she is trapped in the "jump jump" with children who are attacking her and then again on stage at an evangelical nativity play. Far from it, Four Christmases is about the Christmas Brad and Kate almost didn't make it.

The second thing that made me believe that this might be a different movie and actually surprise me was the vehemence of the arguments Brad and Kate have at the outset of the movie against having children or getting married. They were convincing, they were funny, it worked! I sat in my seat and I believed the lies . . . until the first bad cut.

The problem with Four Christmases is that it starts out with character and a decent message/theme and then it utterly abandons it in the most nonsensical way possible. After three very funny scenes wherein the viewer is treated to just how much in love Kate and Brad are and how adamant they are that marriage will ruin what they have, the movie launches into the whole idea of spending the four Christmas celebrations with their various families. Like Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back where Kevin Smith talks about how he had a vision of what the movie was when he wrote and directed the movie, only to be told by the studios that no, he had written a road movie, so get the characters on the road as quickly as possible, director Seth Allen is suddenly directing a Christmas movie, so get them to the Christmas celebrations as quickly as possible. This is done by Kate taking ONE phone call and suddenly, they are locked into FOUR visits. I sat in my seat and said, "What?! He didn't even answer HIS phone, how did they get committed to anything but one?!"

But let's boil it down to its simplest elements because I'm beginning to actually dislike the movie more, the more I write about it: I can deal with it being "that kind of movie," but it still has to make sense. Kate and Brad do EVERYTHING together and have a loving, healthy relationship where they love and respect one another and WANT to be together and stay happy and loving, so they have decided to not have children. They loathe children and in the process of their day, they meet with family who humiliates and abuses them, they see children who commit acts of violence against them, act like brats, and spit up on them and this makes them decide they WANT to have kids! Now, admittedly, I have a little bias here: I'm happily childfree (yes, there are those of us in the world). I was thrilled because for a moment Four Christmases looked like it might advocate a positive, childfree position. But no, all it takes is Kate seeing Brad holding one baby before her reserve cracks.

So, here we have two very intelligent, well-employed people who have love and have made a conscious decision based on logic, reason AND emotions and all it takes for them to change their minds is abandoning one another to the wolves that are each other's families and the reinforcement of all of their worst fears about having children (and, to a lesser extent, marriage). Call me crazy, but whenever I witness my worst-case scenario for something I decided against in another person or couple, it doesn't make me think "wow, I should try that," I think, "Wow, I sure dodged a bullet!" So, even if it's "that kind of movie," it still has to be good at being "that kind of movie" and Four Christmases is not.

And yes, it is appropriate to rail against it being "that kind of movie" even at the holidays. Your single or childless friends don't need yet another Hollywood film coming along and trying to convince them that they are selfish or miserable for not having or wanting children (we tend to have parents for that). Here are two DINKs who are able to have fun, provide their loved ones with fabulous things and treat one another beautifully: why should they suddenly want children, especially when they see how rotten other people's kids have turned out and know about their own boatloads of issues?

The marriage issue is dealt with somewhat better than the child issue, though there's an irritating tendency in Four Christmases to push the two hand-in-hand. At no point do either of the protagonists say "Okay, maybe children, but we were right about not getting married." Instead, the idea of marriage working for the couple comes out in a particularly witless scene where Brad's brother Denver and his wife mop the floor with everyone in a game that proves how well they know one another. The reason this scene doesn't work like it could in virtually every other movie is that Kate and Brad do everything together and love doing things with one another. You don't have that level of interaction with someone without picking up on what they like, dislike, etc.

In other words, Four Christmases sacrifices any sense of character for a dumb, obvious comedy that is just plain troubling. Indeed, much of the movie is violent physical comedy that will largely appeal to the under 13 crowd or slapstick and gross-out humor like babies spitting up on people. All of this is in the trailer and rather than go on my usual rant against preview trailers that show all of the movie - this one did - I'm going in a different direction. Mr. Gordon: watch the preview trailer for your movie Four Christmases. If that doesn't make you want to fire your editor, I don't know what would. The editing for the trailer has an actual sense of comedic timing, lines like Witherspoon talking to her mom about Brad giving her a hug are actually funny (at least the first time) in the trailer. In the movie, it is cut together with such speed that there is no joke there. As well, there are elements in the trailers that did not make the final cut, so this is bound to be loaded with deleted scenes for the DVD. One suspects, again that there is some pressure here to get the Christmas visits started because some of that humor might have slowed down the film. But with only 82 minutes to the movie to begin with, it's tough to wonder why they weren't included at least to get it up to the requisite 90 minutes most films are held to (matinees only, people!).

The soundtrack in Four Christmases is annoyingly overt through most of the film as well, with background music being up-tempo Christmas remixes, as if to remind the viewer before the visits begin that they are watching a Christmas movie. The whole editing problem persists throughout the movie and if comedy is based upon surprise, virtually all of the best moments once the Christmas visits begin are ruined by the trailers. Actually, the only real laughs to be had outside what was in the trailers is all dialogue-based - ahh, geriatric sex jokes! - and the overall feeling of the movie is that this is a sloppy movie. Yes, those of us who watch even "that kind of movie" for details will be shocked at how poorly put together this movie is. For example, after being vomited on by a baby, Kate is forced to wear clothes her sister has for her at her mother's house despite the fact that her luggage would have been in the car they came in (all of the gifts were mailed beforehand and if the couple was that eager to get the day over with, they would have gone right from the airport . . .)

The pacing is also terribly off in Four Christmases, with the first two families taking a disproportionately long time. Family visit number three is essentially a setup for a single joke (it's in the trailers) and the final one isn't funny at all, merely the chance for everyone to come around to their obvious and predestined revelations.

As for the acting . . . Jon Voight might as well have walked off the set of Pride And Glory and onto the set of Four Christmases for all of the differences in how he plays the two parts I've seen him in the last month. Kristin Chenowith plays yet another perky, ditzy woman and Jon Favreau is yet another Neanderthal type man. It turns out that this is actually the first movie starring Vince Vaughn I've sat through but he plays the role of Brad exactly as I would have expected given the few supporting roles I've seen him in or in previews for other dumb comedies in which he starred.

As for Reese Witherspoon . . . Merry Christmas: I'm not going to go into how poorly she was boxed into an obvious role and relegated to passing off her smile and a look of cautious intrigue as comedy. Please, just don't lie to me again.

Four Christmases is exactly the movie is appears to be from the trailers, only the process of getting there is nowhere near as funny, clever or sensible as it could have been. And no one needs their intelligence or values insulted for Christmas.

For other Christmas movies, please check out my reviews of:
The Muppet Christmas Carol
Batman Returns
The Nightmare Before Christmas


For other film reviews, be sure to check out my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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