Four Christmases

David Swindle
Grade: C

I really should have seen this coming a mile away.

If there has been one trend in modern comedy that I've reviled more than any other it's the ascendancy of the "embarrassment comedy" to prominence. Ever since the "Meet the Parents" movies together made $847 million worldwide studios have eagerly churned out embarrassment snuff films.

The formula is so simple. Take likable protagonists and stick them in the most painfully embarrassing scenarios imaginable for 90 minutes straight. Some people obviously like this stuff. I am not one of them. Humiliating a protagonist with whom I sympathize is acceptable in moderation - a scene here or there is reasonable. The precursor to the genre, "There's Something About Mary," managed to get the balance right. But the film would not have worked if the pain of the notorious "zipper scene" was repeated continuously.

I was so attracted to the creativity of the premise of "Four Christmases" that I failed to realize that within it lied the potential for another sadistic exploration within this intolerable genre.

"Four Christmases" will likely find quite a large audience because the scenario it utilizes to hang its jokes is one familiar to a large segment of Generations X and Y. I suspect my fiancée and I weren't alone in enacting our own version of it this Thanksgiving with our task of visiting three different sets of parents in one day.

Brad (Vince Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon,) are two generic, but likable, yuppies. They've lived together for years but have resisted the accepted path of marriage and children. Both being of divorced families, they have a rather hostile view of tradition.

Their annual holiday plans of lying to their families and jetting off to a tropical locale are destroyed when fog rolls in, thus delaying their flight for a day. When a local news team just happens to spontaneously interview them the jig is up. Brad and Kate will have to visit each of their divorced parents in one day and have the titular "Four Christmases."

The first stop is Brad's dad Howard (Robert Duval.) Also making an appearance are Brad's brothers Dallas (Tim McGraw) and Denver (Jon Favreau,) two aggressive cage fighters who physically assault Brad. The sequences of Dallas and Denver hurting Brad are not funny. At all.

Next up is Kate's mom Marilyn (Mary Steenburgen) and her sisters and aunts. Kate warns Brad going in that the house is a "bit of a cougar's den." (Translation: many older women who are very sexual and procreation oriented.) Note for comedy writers: "elderly women saying sexual things" is not funny either.

Third is Brad's mom Paula (Sissy Spacek) who has found a new husband in Brad's childhood best friend. Brad is rightfully a bit hostile toward his former friend. The popular obscenity that incorporates the word "mother" seems entirely appropriate. The jokes from this sequence are perhaps the strongest since they revolve around Brad's anger at his unusual step-dad.

By the fourth Christmas with Kate's father Creighton (Jon Voight) the film has primarily shifted away from slapstick, sex, embarrassment, and gross out humor to a dramatic style as the couple absorb the family experiences of the day and question their relationship's basic assumptions.

"Four Christmases" is not a complete disaster in that its premise is versatile enough to allow for many different kinds of jokes and comedic sequences, some that are more effective than others. Overall probably more jokes hit the ground than the target. Much of the slapstick material - seeming homages to "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" - tend to fail. Other promising opportunities seem lost. The film sets up the character of Pastor Phil (Dwight Yoakam,) the eccentric boyfriend of Marilyn but fails to really do much with the character. I suspect much of his material probably ended up on the cutting room floor and he'll be featured more in the deleted scenes on the DVD. It's unfortunate the film did not satirize the Christian mega church phenomenon to the degree that it initially appeared it might.

The film manages a few decent dramatic moments between Brad and Kate in its third act but fails to follow through on them. We're set up for a touching conclusion between the couple but instead the film reverts back to comedy with bad jokes and an ending that reveals the filmmakers had no idea how to finish.

"Four Christmases" might make some money in the coming weeks but it's not likely to earn itself a regular viewing every holiday season. It's not a horrible film to sit through and has some nice insights on family, divorce, and marriage but it's really not hard to find more satisfying films to watch.