Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 9:10 pm on November 30, 2008

Status: In theaters (opened 11/26/08)
Directed By: Seth Gordon
Written By: Matt Allen & Caleb Wilson and Jon Lucas & Scott Moore
Cinematographer: Jeffrey L. Kimball
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Reese Witherspoon

A common problem with comedies is the inability of the writers to find an adequate balance between plot and character development and humor. Sometimes when the focus is more on storytelling (e.g., Knocked Up), the film can drag when the laughs are more spaced out. Focusing solely on the humor, though, gets old really quickly (as in any Will Ferrell comedy, most recently Step Brothers). Finding a novel approach to this dilemma might sound guaranteed to fail, but Four Christmases takes a pretty decent angle, albeit one that’s somewhat of a cop out: rather than trying to maintain a fully developed, multi-layered story arc throughout the film’s entire 90-ish minutes, the story is split into four main vignettes, introduced with a prologue and tidied up with an epilogue. The technique is mostly successful, if taken in context, although there’s nothing ground-breaking here… which shouldn’t come as any sort of surprise.

Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon play an affluent San Francisco couple, content to remain unmarried and without children, and happiest when spending time by themselves—particularly when that means not visiting their families for the holidays. When severe fog grounds all flights in and out of SFO (an occurrence that I can say from personal experience is not that uncommon), they find themselves attempting to spend Christmas with each of their divorced parents. Each of these four segments could probably stand on their own as a prolonged SNL skit, but for the two main characters they share, who go through a relationship crisis of sorts as the day progresses.

This structure has a couple of major benefits: each of the four visits exists as its own little sub-story, meaning there’s not much of an expectation for character development within them. It also means that each can rely primarily on a single joke without much worry of it becoming too stale: there’s the redneck father (Robert Duvall) and his amateur-fighting sons (Jon Favreau and Tim McGraw), the born-again mother (Mary Steenburgen), the wise old grandfather (Jon Voight), and the hippie single mom (Sissy Spacek). Each side of the family also has a perpetually procreating sister (Kristin Chenoweth and Katy Mixon), which serves as both fertile ground for humor as well as the basis for Witherspoon’s character’s progression.

This isn’t to say that this is the ideal way to structure a comedy; in fact, it’s sort of a lazy way to write a movie, but at least it’s somewhat better than throwing together yet another mindless bout of slapstick. Vince Vaughn is funny in his typical way, and there’s even a Swingers reunion of sorts when he and Favreau are joined by Patrick Van Horn in one of the movie’s funniest (and most awkward) scenes. (Having Favreau’s character and his family show up at more than one of the four Christmases, by the way, serves as a nice way of helping to add a sense of continuity to the overall story.) It’s also fun to see director Seth Gordon translate his modest success from The King of Kong into a more mainstream gig (and it’s very cool of him to cast Steve Wiebe in a small role). Overall this is basically a fun movie, though certainly not a great one. There’s no huge revelation it provides, but there are plenty of laughs, and the relationship between Vaughn and Witherspoon is cute, as is the conclusion they arrive at after their trying day spent with each other’s families.