To brand, then dismiss, Four Christmases as a disappointment would be giving it too much credit — never, for a second, did this New Line Cinema cast-off scream or even whisper decent in the run-up to its opening. The story of couple Kate (Reese Witherspoon) and Brad (Vince Vaughn) — not married, might as well be — who, fogged in on December 25, put their planned Fiji frolic on hold to visit their four divorced parents in the course of a single day, the movie doesn't offer a single surprise within its scant 82 minutes, which feels like at least twice that. There's happiness and cheer and more than the occasional tear dropped between shouting matches and withering stares, all pre-assembled and gift-wrapped by the ho-ho-hos at The Studio.
Sure, there was every reason to hope for more. Four Christmases was, after all, directed by Seth Gordon, whose 2007 The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters was a bittersweet, hilarious documentary in which a cocky mullet squares off against a sweet doofus over a Donkey Kong machine. At first, word was that Gordon had been hired to remake his fact as Hollywood fiction. Then, word was that Gordon was doing his home-for-the-holidays movie — the sure sign a comer had gone in the wrong direction. How cute, though: Gordon brought King of Kong's sweet doofus, Steve Wiebe, along to Hollywood to appear in Four Christmases. Alas, he says nothing and, in one scene, pretends to sleep on a couch.
Still — Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon, right? As sure a thing as pancakes and bacon on Christmas morning. But even there the pairing's off. Whatever Vaughn has going for him, he serves up times a thousand here; as big ol' Brad, the guy's turned up to eleven. In the past, Vaughn has proved capable of lowering the volume without sacrificing what made him; he's rather good in the underrated The Break-Up, as unflinching as Four Christmases is phony. Here, he must have felt the need to shout, just to be heard.
And Witherspoon's just...there. And barely there at that, no doubt a condition brought about by standing next to Mount Vaughn, who tends to dwarf anyone with whom he shares a scene. As perky/grumpy poor ol' Kate, she starts out strong, role-playing as a take-no-shit barfly who screws Vaughn's wallflower put-on in a bathroom stall during the opening scene. But as the movie deflates (starting about two minutes in), so does she. Then again, it's hard to act in a movie that has you driving here and there and back again in barely more time than an episode of a TV dramedy.
It's also difficult to build a character when the writers — four of them, one for every twenty minutes — fail to create anything more than bland archetypes. Their own parents being divorced, Kate and Brad don't want to get married; life's rough. Only Kate's having doubts; hints are dropped early. Then whispers become screams as, one by one, they visit the folks: first, Brad's dad (a surly Robert Duvall); then Kate's mom (a horny Mary Steenburgen); then Brad's mom (a hornier Sissy Spacek); and finally, Kate's dad (a patronly and oddly smooth-surfaced Jon Voight).
There is, of course, the slightest chance that Four Christmases wasn't intended as a comedy; it's so irritating at times — the people, the screeching, the way everything looks washed out in a made-in-the-early-'80s way — that maybe Gordon was going for ironic, grim and sad. Or perhaps it was gutted of its best moments. Surely, something was left on the kitchen floor to get this thing under ninety minutes. Based on the evidence provided by King of Kong, Gordon is capable of better — to say nothing of Witherspoon, Vaughn and their small army of co-stars. Really, Four Christmases is too benign to get too worked up about. For a worse Christmas movie, one need look back no further than last fall's Fred Claus, starring Vaughn and that poor, poor Paul Giamatti.