The biggest artistic challenge facing first-time feature helmer Seth Gordon in “Four Christmases” was how to photograph co-stars Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon in the same frame, as he’s about a foot and a half taller than she is. It’s a dilemma the director never really solves in this oddly misanthropic, occasionally amusing but thoroughly cheerless holiday attraction that is in no way a family film, but will no doubt be mistaken for such by many unsuspecting patrons. Given the cast and comic expectations, commercial results should be moderately bright, at least initially, for this New Line venture inherited by Warner Bros.
Parents will know they’ve walked into the wrong film right away, as the opening scene has lovers Brad (Vaughn) and Kate (Witherspoon) pretending not to know each other and enacting a pick-up scene at a trendy bar before slipping into the bathroom for some quick shtupping. Remainder of the script by a foursome of writers spins on the view held by these two smug, self-satisfied San Francisco professionals that family visits over Christmas are to be avoided at all costs.
With their planned trip to Fiji canceled by fog, the couple have the misfortune of being shown on TV stranded at the airport, resulting in instantaneous parental calls to come visit. As each has divorced parents, that makes four households to stop by — something of a challenge for a twosome who have sworn off marriage and kids, for reasons that shortly become obvious.
Format thus sets up an episodic structure that would seem to demand that each visit top the last in excruciating, hilarious awfulness. But nothing outdoes the spectacle of the first family encounter, with Brad’s grumpy redneck father (Robert Duvall) and his muscle-bound brothers, Denver and Dallas (Jon Favreau and Tim McGraw), cage wrestlers both. Sequence unquestionably makes fun of these lower-class yahoos and ends in catastrophe.
Next up are Kate’s mom (Mary Steenburgen) and assorted offspring, notably including Kate’s sister Courtney (Kristin Chenoweth, an excellent sibling match-up with Witherspoon). As happened with Brad at the initial stop, beans get spilled about Kate here that she’d rather keep in the deep freeze. As Mom has taken up with a good ol’-time-religion preacher (Dwight Yoakam), everyone heads off to a Christmas pageant in which the visitors are embarrassingly drafted to portray Joseph and Mary.
Visiting Brad’s rich old hippie mother (Sissy Spacek), her son must endure the company of Ma’s boyfriend, who just happens to be one of his own former buddies.
By the time they get to the home of Kate’s father (Jon Voight, also aptly cast opposite Witherspoon), she’s so bummed she packs off Brad, for whom the main lesson of the day has been “the dangers of procreating.” Kate is in a different state of mind, a rather odd one given the calamities of the day, and one that sets up a momentary conflict quickly solved.
Vaughn is his usual motor-mouthed, preoccupied self, although less antic and vulgar and more polite and considerate than his norm. Breaking type here is Witherspoon, who abandons her perky, upbeat image for the brittle, somewhat chilly piece of work that is Kate. With all the scripts doubtless at her doorstep in the wake of her “Walk the Line” triumph, it’s a wonder she chose this one, which in no way relies upon her special talents and does her no particular favors.
Set in the Bay Area, the pic has modest production values that could have used a little of the coin that no doubt went to pay the 11 producers. Director Gordon parlayed his documentary success with “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” into this narrative gig, and his work is not without promise, although he had even more trouble setting up over-the-shoulder shots with his two stars than he did with the two-shots.