In what is fast becoming an unfortunate annual tradition, Four Christmases is the first of 2008's dysfunctional family holiday movies.
Brad (Vince Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon) are thirty-something's who have been living together for three years and are convinced the only thing that could ruin their relationship is marriage. Chances are their negative matrimonial attitudes stem from the fact both their parents are divorced. Because each is now living in new relationships with other children, it makes the idea of getting together to celebrate Christmas very complicated.
So the independent couple has instead chosen to hatch lies about saving starving children in Third World countries when in fact they have headed off on a sunny vacation each year. However, this year throws a snowball their way when bad weather cancels all flights leaving San Francisco. Worse yet, the stranded pair find themselves on live television dressed in beach gear -- and their families are quick to phone after discovering they are grounded for Christmas.
With no other choice, and having never met each others' families, Brad and Kate get in their SUV and begin a day of introductions to their separated parents and siblings. They begin with Brad's father Howard (Robert Duvall), and brothers Dallas (Tim McGraw) and Denver (Jon Favreau). After a wild wrestling match and an attempt to set up a satellite dish, the next stop is Kate's mom's house (Mary Steenburgen) where they find themselves as part of a very contemporary nativity enactment under the direction of her mother's fanatical Christian boyfriend Pastor Phil (Dwight Yoakam).
At this point, you'd swear the day (and hopefully the movie) should be coming to an end, but two more visits await. So they move on to Brad's new-age mother (played by Sissy Spacek) who is living with one of his old school buddies. Finally, they drop in on Creighton (Jon Voight), Mary's father. The most "normal" of the bunch, this character lectures about being honest and leads the story to the obligatory, sappy happy ending.
Probably the greatest problem with this genre of movies is their mixture of slapstick comedy (implying the actions are funny, which is highly debatable) juxtaposed with serious messages. In this case the film gives lip service to the idea that having a baby can be a life-fulfilling event -- a tough statement to swallow after having been subjected to dozens of sight gags and jokes involving babies vomiting, defecating and breastfeeding. We're also firmly told families are worth the hassle -- again a platitude that is hardly demonstrated on-screen.
After 90 minutes of sexual innuendos, some sexual activity, a moderate selection of profanities and a group of characters who spend far more time arguing than enjoying each other's company, you may question where the holiday spirit is in this film. Arriving home for Christmas with bags packed full of psychological and emotional disturbances, the most unfortunate part is no one has kept their receipts -- preventing any happy returns.