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Four Christmases: Four Times the Gags, Half the Gifts

Heading into the theater to see Four Christmases, I felt like bad child expecting a stocking full of coal on Christmas morning. But when I got to the tree, I discovered not coal, but a Tickle-Me-Elmo. It was a nice surprise. Granted, it was no Tiffany’s.

Four Christmases was exactly like a Tickle-Me-Elmo. It was silly; it made me laugh; and it was clearly made for the immature. It’s also sure to be popular and will be completely forgotten by next year.

Packed with enough star power to start up a hybrid, Four Christmases is bound to bring in the quarreling masses fresh from their shopping trips. A-listers Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon head up the cast as Brad and Kate, a long-time happily unmarried and child-free couple who has spent their relationship avoiding their families by planning fake “charity” vacations every Christmas. Except this year, all the flights are cancelled, and after a TV crew catches them trying to hop a flight to Fiji, they’re forced to spend the day with – gasp – their families. So Brad and Kate get stuck doing four Christmases in one day – which begs the question, how is this possible? Did they have a time machine? Was it Groundhog’s day? I didn’t see Bill Murray anywhere. But sense isn’t really what Four Christmases is going for; it’s going for outrageous.

And outrageous certainly applies to these families. First there’s Brad’s family: the ultimate fighting champion hick brothers who beat the crud out of Brad just for kicks – and the Jackass-like giggles it induces. Try not to laugh – I dare you! Jon Favreau and country star Tim McGraw play Brad’s brothers, Denver and Dallas, about as dumb as you can get ‘em, which isn’t a bad thing. And stepping in as Brad’s verbally abusive, alcoholic father is Robert Duvall. Talk about a cast.

The lesser players continue to impress. Brad’s hippy mother – who is sleeping with his former best friend – is played with subtly by Sissy Spacek. Over at Kate’s mom’s, Mary Steenburgen cougars it up in her home filled with undersexed older women and statues of Jesus. And Jon Voight joins in, ironically playing Kate’s normal father. But it’s the seriously underrated Kristen Chenoweth who steals the show for me as Kate’s deliciously vapid – and cleavagey – sister. She may have played the Good Witch Glinda, but Kristin Chenowith’s wickedly funny.

And it’s a good thing the supporting cast stepped up, because Vaughn and Witherspoon had about as much chemistry as bad fruitcake. Man, they were bland. Vaughn stepped it up a bit with his fast-talking and witty one-liners. He managed a few zingers before the gig was up. Witherspoon also upped her physical comedy game – tossing aside kids in a bouncy castle like she was Hulk Hogan in the ring. And she seemed to be a good sport about getting a little raunchy – fair warning, this is not really a movie for the kids. But mostly Miss Witherspoon was phoning this one in.

Ultimately, what this movie wants to be is Chevy Chase’s Christmas Vacation. It’s got all the physical humor down – from the fall from the roof to the kicks in the groin to the fire in the living room. It certainly has the family dysfunction. And it’s even got a few sarcastic and, dare-I-say, smart one-liners. But it lacks the heart of a Griswald family Christmas. Four Christmases is supposed to be about a couple getting to know each other better by meeting each other’s crazy families, learning about their ridiculous pasts, and emerging with a different outlook toward kids and family. Four Christmases never achieves that. Brad and Kate start out shallow and end up shallow.

But if you’re looking for an escape from the cold or your own crazy family, Four Chistmases will tickle your elmo. Sure, it’s not sterling or gold, but hey, at least it’s not coal.

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