Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Film Review--Four Christmases

Four Christmases
directed by Seth Gordon
written by Matt Allen, Caleb Wilson, Jon Lucas, Scott Moore
starring Vince Vaughn, Reece Witherspoon, Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Jon Voight, Jon Favreau, Mary Steenburgen, Dwight Yoakam, Tim McGraw, Jon Favreau, Kristen Chenoweth, Katy Mixon

Get out before you become one of them. In this occasionally amusing but rather generic holiday offering, a self-absorbed couple is forced to dissect their perfect relationship against the backdrop of too much familiarity with the families they are attempting to avoid.

Brad (Vaughn) and Kate (Witherspoon) have been together for three years and in that time they have established a great number of ground rules. Chief among these is that they will not rush into marriage and that they will not have children. They are ostensibly happy to merely be together without suffering the improprieties of any excess and unnecessary baggage. When the holidays arrive they attempt to pull another disappearing act by heading off to Fuji but circumstances line up against them and they have no choice but to pay a visit to their various families. Both of their parents are divorced so this means four trips in one long, horrific day. The film sets up these encounters as essentially odious experiences that cause great discontent and leave the pair gasping for air.

The families are presented as oppressive and in possession of too much ammunition to fire at Brad and Kate. Each stop proves to be a grueling exercise in survival. There is nothing remotely charming or endearing about these visits; they are played up for worst case scenario in terms of how they support the fragile egos of the merry couple. Everything that can go wrong does initially as Brad attempts to deal with his Father Howard (Duvall) and his beef mountain brothers Dallas (McGraw) and Denver (Favreau). He’s obviously been on the short end of many physical battles with his brothers who taunt and tease him mercilessly upon his and Kate’s arrival. It’s just an ugly situation where Brad tries to stand up for himself only to be further rebuked by his brothers. Howard just sits on the sideline and laughs to himself because he thinks Brad is a sissy.

Things get progressively worse for Brad and Kate as they start to learn that despite all appearances they don’t necessarily know each other too terribly well. Little things begin to pick at them as they discover new secrets that neither one of them has bothered to share. Brad learns that Kate used to be morbidly obese and went to some kind of fat camp when she was little. Kate discovers that Brad’s real name is Orlando. These facts and some others start to tear into them and each stop on the tour only proves to exacerbate the situation leaving great holes that for a time seem unfixable.

This is an example of how familiarity breeds contempt. There is tremendous tension between the characters and these little get togethers are presented as strained opportunities for family members to make each other feel as wretchedly small as possible. At least this is how Brad and Kate, two outcasts who are not a part of the traditional family holiday experience, are treated whether by accident or on purpose. Most likely their families are perfectly unaware of the buttons they are pushing and the pain they are unleashing. Brad discovers that his old best friend is nailing his mother Paula (Spacek), something that one can understand might scar him for life. Kate’s mother Marilyn (Steenburgen) has given almost everything to a preacher named Phil (Yoakam) and seems to have no time to listen to anything her daughter has to say. Little cruelties build up and each time the wounds get a little deeper and a little more difficult to hide. This is family life stripped of its pretenses and revealed to the world to be something of a callous excuse for people to take out their frustrations on those who are least likely to fight back.

Not all of the relatives are thorny people who prick and poke at will into the soft underbelly that everyone leaves exposed when they are around their family. There are those who genuinely seem to be interested in discovering something about Brad and Kate but mostly they don’t even feign the slightest concern and treat them as something to be tolerated during the holidays. It’s mostly through body language that one discovers the true meaning of Christmas in these various households. There is a grave distance between the various family members and any stab at warmth and inclusion rings false.

The camera work here is mostly pedestrian but it serves the overall purpose of the film. This isn’t a film that requires fancy camera work as it uses obvious tricks to convey the message it is attempting to jam down its audience’s throat. It’s a rather cynical message that comes across as anti-family and exceedingly hostile to the idea that families are whole units that unconditionally love and respect their various components. The film doesn’t do anything particularly novel with its story but it does manage to convey a sense of legitimate despair over the state of the many broken marriages that continue to afflict people long after their parents have split.

This isn’t a cheerful, joyous ode to the monumental ecstasy of traditional family holiday experiences. These aren’t the kind of people one would choose to spend any time with if the option could be avoided. Indeed, the film seems to suggest how families often hold on to specific images of us that are but mere fragments of who we truly are. By confronting their angles on us we are forced to reevaluate who we truly imagine ourselves to be. Kate and Brad are subjected to a great number of inconsistencies in their relationship because they discover that they don’t really know that much about one another. Yet they are exceedingly close and share just about everything that a typical couple would be expected to share. Being subjected to the families digs up some of the less comforting aspects of each of their personalities and they have to scramble to realign themselves.

There are a few moments in the film where a bit less would have sufficed. There is a scene where a bunch of horrible kids are playing in a contraption called the Jump-Jump. Kate is forced to enter where she is battered, beaten and otherwise humiliated by the kids. The scene starts off rather promisingly with ominous music and a conveyance of the tight, enclosed space Kate is about to enter. Arms and fists are flailing as Kate is being pummeled. It’s a bit disturbing but could have been more so with tighter editing.

Kate is able to find herself near the very end as one would expect from a film such as this. She comes to a place of understanding but she does it completely on her own and without much help from her family. She convincingly establishes herself in a strong position and is able to map out something of a future which challenges the validity of everything that has come before. She realizes she is indeed equipped to manage those difficulties she has fled from out of fear and the result is rather winning in its way.

The performances in this film are tailor made for this knotty story of petty conflicts that haunt each of us long after we have left the crib. Vince Vaughn creates a likable character who wants nothing more than to maintain the comfortable lifestyle he has managed for himself. Vaughn is exceedingly personable and warm; he invites the viewer in to share with Brad’s joys and sorrows. Reece Witherspoon is also completely engaging in this role and demonstrates a knack for both subtle and broad humor. She is quite good in this film at reacting to the chaos building up around her character. The heavyweights in this film manage to add a bit of humor to the proceedings. Sissy Spacek and Robert Duvall do quite a lot without doing much of anything at all. Their facial tics and gestures easily capture the confusions of their respective characters. Mary Steenburgen establishes the nuttiness of her character as well as her vulnerability. Marilyn is blissfully engaged on a plane that the rest of the film doesn’t even try to grapple with. Steenburgen gives us a keen insight into the superficial niceties that cause certain people to fall headlong for a particular creed, however creepy and cultish. Jon Voight has few lines but still manages to establish a totemic presence during his few scenes. Jon Favreau and Tim McGraw ham it up as two exceedingly physical behemoths who do little more than establish their joint enormous mass. Katy Mixon has but a few lines but she establishes her character’s limited intellect and penchant for trailer trash delicacies. Kristen Chenoweth is delightfully off kilter in this film and possesses a definite charm throughout.

Overall, this is a passable comedy with some fine performances that pounds a rather unsavory idea into the skulls of the unwitting audience. It’s a film that seems to want it both ways. By pointing out the foibles that make up many a family dynamic it sends the message that families are disturbing creatures best left in cages hundreds if not thousands of miles away where they can harm no one. But it also turns on this idea in the end and softens everything into an easily digestible paste. Still, it does manage to taint the offering with a dash of arsenic which is ultimately redemptive and solidifies the basic structure the film spends much of its time painstakingly building up. Families are cruel. They most often mean no harm but they can’t help but cause grave damage due to their close proximity to their victims. In the lexicon of this film, it’s best to keep to oneself and avoid being subjected to the perceptions of others with pretensions that they know what is best for you in the end.

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