Serious talent can overcome even the most hackneyed of movie plots, as Four Christmases proves.
A surprisingly deft and sometimes hilarious variation on the well-worn "holidays+relatives=hell" story line (see Home for the Holidays, Christmas with the Kranks, Fred Claus, etc.), Four Christmases works because of some genuinely funny setups, a pace that never dwells on one gag (or even one family) too long and a careful mix of slapstick and bawdy humor.
But mostly, the film works because of the astonishing acting talent the filmmakers brought together to make it. No fewer than five Oscar winners - Reese Witherspoon, Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen and Jon Voight - get to show their funny sides in the films. Unless Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep team up for some film in the next few weeks, it's unlikely you'll see so many Oscars gathered in one place this side of Hollywood itself.
Not that talent itself is any guarantee; remember how Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty once pooled their resources to make Ishtar? But the makers of Four Christmases have struck pay dirt, especially director Seth Gordon (the video-game documentary The King of Kong), by allowing their actors simply to have a good time. Who knew Sissy Spacek could be so funny?
The films centers on Brad and Kate (Vince Vaughn and Witherspoon), a couple of narcissistic yuppie-types determined to maintain a relationship as void of responsibility as possible. There's no commitment, no sense of loyalty, no bond that stretches beyond the here-and-now. Every Christmas, they make up some story about flying off to a third-world country to save the children, just so they won't have to spend time with their respective parents.
But when a dense San Francisco fog grounds all the flights on Christmas Day and they're interviewed live by a roving TV reporter, the jig is up. Now, they have no choice but to spend Christmas with the folks.
First up is Brad's drill sergeant of a dad (Duvall), whose home is a reservoir of barely controlled chaos (Jon Favreau and Tim McGraw play his other two sons, both extreme wrestlers whose idea of affection is a full-Nelson). From there, it's on to Kate's randy, self-obsessed mom (Steenburgen) and her latest beau, Pastor Phil (Dwight Yoakam); then Brad's clueless mom (Spacek), who's married to his childhood best friend; then finally, Kate's endearingly wise dad (Voight, who should know plenty about dysfunctional families).
Witherspoon is at her most winning, struggling to control situations where that's clearly impossible. Vaughn plays what he always plays, the redeemable boar, and his one-note career may be wearing thin. Still, he does what he does well, and his character's overwhelming boarishness leads to one of the film's funniest scenes, as he's asked to take over the role of Joseph in Pastor Phil's Christmas play, only to embrace the role with rock-star intensity.
As for the parental team of Duvall, Spacek, Steenburgen and Voight, it's hard to remember when they've clearly had so much fun on-screen. Spacek, especially, is a joy to watch, as she spearheads a game of Taboo that inexorably spins out of control.
What makes Four Christmases work, despite a few missteps into the overbroad, is that it starts with the ridiculous, then moves toward the sublime. By the end of the film, the audience has taken the same journey as Brad and Kate, and comes to the same realizations about family and relationships: They may not always be fun, and they may take work, but often they're all we have.
That's wisdom that isn't exactly profound, but it is refreshing. And in the hands of all the old pros assembled here, it's - thankfully - not belabored. This is a film that's funny, not stupid. And that may be the best Christmas present of all.
(New Line Cinema) Starring Reese Witherspoon, Vince Vaughn. Directed by Seth Gordon. Rated PG-13 for sexual humor and language. Time 82 minutes.