Rating: Rated M (sexual references)
Alternatively titled “Four Holidays” and “Four Christmases,” this is a comedy geared especially for the festive season. Brad (Vince Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon) are partnering each other, with possible marriage on the horizon, and decide to go on a Christmas vacation together to escape – away from their relatives. Things don’t go as planned and they find themselves fogged-in at San Francisco airport on their way to Fiji, with all flights cancelled. Caught by the media, while trying to escape, their plans are spoiled very publicly, and they are expected home - by Howard, Brad’s father (Robert Duvall); Marilyn, Kate’s mother (Mary Steenburgen), Paula, Brad’s mother (Sissy Spacek); and Creighton, Kate’s father (John Voight). Both sets of parents are divorced and have their own problems. Brad and Kate face four Christmases with their relatives all on the one day. This is a romantic comedy with an impressive line-up of actors and actresses, most of whom have Academy awards behind them. The result is a much-respected cast that doesn’t quite know what to do with the material supplied them. Everyone pulls the stops out to display their neuroses, including Brad’s brothers and Kate’s sister (played very well by Kristin Chenoweth), who manage to show an excruciating display of sibling rivalry.
Having holidays with extended families is a reliably fertile ground for good comedy and this film makes the most of it, drawing its comic thrust from old-fashioned anxiety about things that could go wrong when one attempts to visit family. And here they do go wrong. The stresses of family life have taken their toll on both Brad and Kate and past traumas catch up with them on Christmas day as family dynamics are played out with a vengeance, and their relationship begins to falter as the visits progress. Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn, as Brad and Kate, don’t work together all that well, and the life-size statue of Jesus with outstretched arms, representing Marilyn’s search for true love with Parson Phil (played by Dwight Yoakam) demonstrates that many scenes in this frenetic comedy of situations push laughter to an absurd level – showing that nearly everyone in this comedy wants to cut loose from any character constraints. The pace of the comedy situations should demonstrate high energy throughout, but it doesn’t. Jon Voight, as Kate’s father, supplies a more serious tone to the movie as he attempts to pull the pieces together in an emotional way when Kate (after telling Brad to go) makes the final visit; his effort to put some meaning into his daughter’s life affects her relationship with Brad. At the end of four visits, all with traumatic consequences, Brad and Kate discover each other afresh, and their family visits have resulted in a new understanding of what each means to the other, the film’s resolution making its serious point after the laughter has died away. At the end of the day, there is a heavily delivered message that family is important and one is supposed to forget about all things contrary that went before. People in families may behave stupidly to each other, but family is a unit that has to, and will survive, and the film clearly values it, although the film delivers its moral message very sentimentally, a little late, and with a lot of tugging of the heart strings.
Robert Duvall (of “Tender Mercies” fame) and Sissy Spacek, as Brad’s father and mother, stand out. Duvall brings subtly to his role and Spacek plays her character in a delightfully distracted way. Seth Gordon in his first feature-length movie, that easily might have lost control completely, attempts to bring chaos to a conclusion that is only partially successful. A satirical soundtrack (playing a medley of well-known Christmas songs), with music by Alex Wurman, helps to carry the film along.
This is a sporadically enjoyable film that draws its appeal from anxiety about what visiting relatives can mean if things don’t go well. Not all the situations will appeal, and their overall impact is rather too physical, but there are enough of them that are comical to make this movie an entertaining experience, especially at this time of the year. Maybe two holidays, instead of four, might have made the point equally as well.
Roadshow. Out December 4th.
Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.