The holiday family comedy has become as ubiquitous in November as Oscar contenders, and Four Christmases falls comfortably into this escapist category. Families can attend these movies together, collectively laugh about how stressful it is to spend Christmas with each other, receive a reassuring message about the importance of their nearest and dearest that's as gooey as fruitcake, then let out a collective sigh and trudge on through to New Year's Day.
What sets Four Christmases apart is that it actually views the holiday as an endurance race, filled with the kind of emotional obstacles Brad (Vince Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon) have studiously avoided in their three years together. It's not the ridiculously heightened expectations that bother them, but dealing with the fallout of acrimonious divorces, the subsequent choices of their parents, and their passive-aggressive (sometimes just plain aggressive) siblings.
Seth Gordon, who directed the great documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007), makes his feature film debut with the brisk, event-filled Four Christmases. After uncovering pathos and triumph in competitive Donkey Kong, Gordon knows how to mine minutiae for comedic gold, and he draws out the details that make the seemingly secure Brad and Kate hesitant to revisit their childhood selves, let alone reveal those long-buried embarrassments to each other.
From their home base of San Francisco, where an inconvenient fog has spoiled their plans for a flight to Fiji, Brad and Kate hit the road in their Land Rover for four Christmases in one day, driven by guilt and obligation. The desert ranch house where Brad's macho father Howard (Robert Duvall) raised his bullying, wrestler brothers Denver (Jon Favreau) and Dallas (Tim McGraw) couldn't be further from the airy retreat in Marin his mother Paula (Sissy Spacek) calls home.
Likewise, the cougar den overseen by Kate's mother Marilyn (Mary Steenburgen) is stripped of any trappings of a commercial Christmas, while the traditional home of her father Creighton (Jon Voight) is the model of a winter wonderland. But nothing quite prepares the shaky couple for the barn-like revival hall where Pastor Phil (Dwight Yoakam) stages a rousing nativity play, and Brad takes on the role of the modest Joseph like he's starring in a one-man Jesus Christ Superstar.
Four Christmases is tailor-made for Vaughn and Witherspoon, ebbing and flowing with their characters' neuroses. With their great timing and comic teamwork, this Christmas cracker really pops.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.