I went into Four Christmases with some of the lowest expectations I’ve had for a movie all year. It exceeded them, but not by a mile, and I’m not sure whether that says more about the movie or how low I’ve dropped my bar for mindless entertainment.
Holiday movies have always been highly susceptible to punishing levels of smarm, but up until maybe 15 years ago, you could reasonably expect to see a really good one once in awhile; titles like Home Alone and Planes, Trains and Automobiles might not have been as great as, say, It’s a Wonderful Life, but they held up to repeat viewings almost as well, and when you got tired of them, there was always Ralphie shooting his eye out to fill you with cinematic goodwill toward men. And then along came stupid Tim Allen with his Santa Clause trilogy, which raked in the Christmas dough with all the good cheer of a candy cane up the poop chute, and helped spawn a hellish army of undead holiday “entertainment” like Jingle All the Way and Jim Carrey’s The Grinch. After more than a decade of this crap, it isn’t hard to understand why no one is complaining about a deluxe reissue of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation — it has the look and feel of a Jimmy Stewart classic in comparison.
At its best, Four Christmases is maybe half as good as Christmas Vacation, but it has a couple of things going for it: First, Tim Allen is nowhere to be found, and second, seeing Vince Vaughn abused never gets old.
I don’t have anything against Vaughn — heck, I don’t even begrudge him his decision to star in Gus Van Sant’s Psycho remake — but I’m not sure there’s an actor in Hollywood who’s more of a natural when it comes to taking physical and/or emotional punishment onscreen. I guess Ben Stiller might come close, but no matter how likable his characters are, Stiller has the squidgy air of someone you wouldn’t want to be alone in an elevator with; watching him slide off a roof is a relief, like watching a scary bug get whacked with a rolled-up newspaper.Vaughn, meanwhile, seems like the kind of guy who’d wrap you in a bear hug and buy you a beer right after meeting you. I like beer.
I also liked Four Christmases, kind of, I guess, if “liked” means I laughed at the sight of Jon Favreau and Tim McGraw beating the hell out of Vaughn, or appreciated someone throwing an easy paycheck at Robert Duvall, Mary Steenburgen, Sissy Spacek, and Jon Voight, or didn’t mind when Dwight Yoakam’s brief appearance as a smarmy pastor reminded me that “Fast As You” is one of the best country songs of the last 20 years. Heck, I even got a chuckle or two out of Reese Witherspoon, and that hasn’t happened since at least Election.
There’s a plot that tries to make some kind of garbled, half-hearted statement about families and growing up and selflessness — you know, all the usual happy holiday crap — but it isn’t really important; it exists mainly as a vehicle for placing Vaughn in a series of awkward and/or painful situations. (Witherspoon has her own uncomfortable moments, but they aren’t funny.) There isn’t a gag you can’t see coming from a mile away and the ending is pretty much instantly obvious, but you knew that the first time you looked at the poster; Four Christmases is dumb, predictable, and 10,000 times better than Christmas with the Kranks, which is about all you can ask of a modern yuletide movie. Between repeat viewings of A Christmas Story, it’ll do. (Bonus fun fact: Peter Billingsley, a.k.a. Ralphie, makes a cameo as an airline employee.)
If you somehow reach the end of Four Christmases and aren’t quite ready to let these characters go, the Blu-ray edition includes an array of bonus content, including a gag reel, a stack of deleted scenes, a “holiday moments” featurette, and a fake cooking show segment with Paula Deen pretending to learn how to make the horrifying seven-layer “salad” cooked by Katy Mixon in the movie. (Also available on DVD and Video on Demand.)
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