“Four Christmases”
New Line
At Quality 16 and Showcase

Courtesy of New Line

3 out of 5 Stars

The holiday season is often associated with happiness and the ever-popular notion of “peace on earth.” But any sort of occasion that inspires family members to gather in close quarters is also bound to result in some kind of dysfunction (especially as far as spiked eggnog is involved). Christmas is a holiday where sass and stress go hand-in-hand with sweetness and stocking stuffers. Holiday-themed films have long relied on this classic trope for plot lines and “Four Christmases” is no exception to the rule.

“Christmases” tells the story of Brad (Vince Vaughn, “The Break Up”) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon, “Rendition”), a blissfully unmarried couple who are bonded by their unconventional long-term relationship. For the two characters, marriage is highly optional, having children seems unreasonable and contact with family is unnecessary. And that makes sense because both Brad and Kate are products of divorced parents. In an effort to remove themselves from any holiday drama, the couple has spent the past few Christmases lying to their parents about volunteering in foreign countries to slip off to a peaceful, private vacation. When a sudden fog grounds all outgoing flights, Kate and Brad are caught by a news crew — and subsequently, their parents — and are forced to celebrate four Christmases, one at each of their parents’ houses.

It’s a romantic comedy, so of course problems for the couple arise in the familiar form of lowbrow hi-jinks: Brad falls from his father’s roof and Kate chases her niece all over the house in order to retrieve a pregnancy test she just took. But at its core, “Christmases” differs from other rom-coms. First, while the humor is far from sophisticated, the film is actually quite funny. Also, unlike other films in the genre where couples are held apart and brought together by extraordinary circumstances, “Christmases” is strangely rooted in reality. Brad and Kate’s relationship suffers because of a realistic problem — a simple conflict of how they see their future together — and Witherspoon and Vaughn do an admirable job balancing the slapstick with the substantive.

While their characters are enjoyable to watch, Vaughn and Witherspoon hardly branch out from their go-to personalities. Vaughn’s Brad is fast-talking and sarcastic and Witherspoon’s Kate is sweet but slightly uptight. It’s really the supporting cast, essentially a “who’s who” of character actors, that steals the movie and generates the laughs. Kristin Chenoweth (TV’s “Pushing Daisies”) is especially entertaining as Courtney, Kate’s baby factory of an older sister. Courtney’s tendency to embarrass Kate seems cruel (she shows Brad pictures of Kate during her stint in fat camp), but with a smile and an adjustment of her push-up bra, Chenoweth wins the audience over every time.

The one family visit that fails comedically is the couple’s visit to Brad’s father. Brad’s Ultimate Fighting Championship brothers (“Iron Man” director Jon Favreau and country music singer Tim McGraw) are a one-note joke and Brad’s father (Oscar winner Robert Duvall, “Thank You For Smoking”) is just too sad, lonely and cranky to be funny.

While romantic comedies of late have been less funny and more cloying, “Christmases” proves the genre isn’t yet dead. The film is unlikely to become a staple of holiday-themed rentals, but in a movie season devoted to drama–heavy Oscar bait, “Four Christmases” is some lighthearted fun.

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