FOUR CHRISTMASES – DVD review

How many Academy Award winners can a studio put in one cast and still turn out a bad movie? In the case of 2008’s “Four Christmases,” the answer is five: Reese Witherspoon, Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Jon Voight, and Mary Steenburgen. Bad is bad no matter who’s in it.

The story, a romantic-comedy variation, concerns a fun-loving San Francisco couple, Brad (Vince Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon), a boyfriend and girlfriend who have lived together for three years without a hitch. Things are going swimmingly for them until on their way to spend a Christmas in Fiji they find the airport fogged in, so instead they decide to visit their parents, each of whom is divorced and lives in the S.F. Bay Area. Four visits, four Christmases. But most of their relatives are so obnoxious, the visits test the limits of the couple’s love for one another. Worse, the relatives are so obnoxious, they test the audience’s limits.

The film’s biggest drawback is that it can’t make up its mind where it’s going. For three-quarters of the story, it’s all slapstick comedy; then, for the last quarter it turns all mushy sentimental. The comedy is far too broad and dumb to be funny, and the ending is too gooey and false for a viewer to take it seriously. Besides, the transition from one extreme to the other is jarring. In other words, none of it works.

None of it works, including Witherspoon and Vaughn. You’d think they’d be able to carry anything, but the material here is so thin, not even they make anything of it. Witherspoon plays a character mainly exasperated, trying unsuccessfully to cope with a canceled trip to the South Seas and the challenges of their families. She gets little that’s humorous to do. Vaughn, on the other hand, has to carry the load, which he does by playing essentially the same character he always plays: the cool, put-upon know-it-all dude. It’s not enough.

The first relative they visit is Brad’s father, Howard (Robert Duvall), a grumpy old macho jerk. Worse, Brad’s two brothers, Denver (Jon Favreau) and Dallas (Tim McGraw), are also visiting the dad, and they both behave like sub-cretins. Brad says they compete in the UFC, but they actually make money in backyard pickup fights. They make the Griswold’s Cousin Eddie look like a NASA scientist by comparison. Most of the action here is of the knockdown, drag-out variety, with Brad’s brothers physically attacking him, people falling off roofs, and the gags telegraphed a mile away.

The next relative they visit is Kate’s mother, Marilyn (Mary Steenburgen), who seems to lust after every man she meets, including Brad. It appears the scriptwriters were going to follow this angle further, but it goes nowhere. Anyway, Marilyn is also a born-again Christian keen on taking Kate and Brad to Church, where a New Age, rock-star preacher, Pastor Phil (Dwight Yoakam), holds forth. The disc’s deleted scenes indicate the filmmakers intended this relationship to go further as well, but it doesn’t.

The third relative they visit is Brad’s mother, Paula (Sissy Spacek), an overage hippie now living with one of Brad’s best friends from childhood. Obviously, seeing his mom living with this guy half her age, this childhood friend, doesn’t sit well with Brad.

The final relative they visit is Kate’s dad, Creighton (Jon Voight), the only sensible member of either family. As a result, Voight has almost nothing to do but stand around for a few minutes looking earnest and then disappear into the woodwork.

Seth Gordon (“The King of Kong”) directed “Four Christmases” as though it were a TV movie-of-the-week. The dysfunctional family issues fall flat; the ridiculous caricatures are insulting; the film’s pratfalls are more annoying than amusing; and even the children are horrible little people. Fortunately, the movie is mercifully brief at eighty-eight minutes, with each of the four episodes only about twenty minutes long. So, this mostly mean-spirited affair at least doesn’t have too much time to get under our skin.

Video:
For this DVD release, the New Line engineers provide two screen versions of the movie on the same side of the disc, one version in the film’s native aspect ratio, 1.85:1, and another in a pan-and-scan modification that chops off part of the sides of the screen to fill up a standard-screen television. (Never mind that New Line continue to use the phrase “This film has been modified to fit your screen” if you own a newer, widescreen TV.)

In any case, I watched in widescreen, where there’s still not a lot to reproduce. It’s a rather simple, straightforward film, with nothing much more than images of a few household interiors to transfer to disc. The picture is fairly soft and a little fuzzy most of the time, almost nondescript, actually, with colors ranging from bright and crisp to dim and dreary. There is also a small degree of noise and grittiness throughout most of the presentation, the result, no doubt, of compressing the two film formats on one side of a DVD. Black levels look OK, but shadow detail is only average.

Audio:
If the picture quality is pretty ordinary, the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is even more ordinary. There’s simply not much going on here because the soundtrack is primarily dialogue. There are no wide dynamics to replicate, no wide frequency response, no deep bass. There is just a fairly modest midrange response and a touch of ambient musical bloom in the surrounds.

Extras:
I guess the folks at New Line figured that providing two screen formats was enough in the extras department. The only other things you get are twenty-three scene selections; access to a digital copy of the movie (the offer expiring February 28, 2010); a few trailers at start-up only; English as the only spoken language; Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Shots:
The question I would have to ask about “Four Christmases” is, Why? Why did so many good actors choose to be in it? Did they need the money? Did their agents talk them into it? Did they not read the script? Surely, they could have foreseen the disaster befalling them. It’s like a Roman couple in 79 A.D. deciding to visit Pompeii for a vacation during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. But it’s so pretty; look how the volcano lights up the night sky.

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