Friday, November 28, 2008

Four Christmases

This week's movie selection came down to a choice between the animated John Travolta/Miley Cyrus vehicle Bolt and the Reese Witherspoon/Vince Vaughn romantic comedy Four Christmases.

I don't know why I bothered. I sensed suckitron emissions coming from both movies. But I figured anything had to be good enough to rid my mouth of the taste of the $9.99 video I recently bought at Target - a film of incomprehensible horridness titled Immortal (ad vitam) - so I decided to go anyway. What finally swayed me in favor of the romantic comedy was the showtime, which gave me over an hour to visit a nearby pub and have a stiff drink and set my mind in order for the ordeal.

I haven't liked most of the recent movies headlined by the two stars of Four Christmases. I also haven't loved most recent movies portraying the American family during the holidays. I don't know whether it reflects what Hollywood wants us to think, or the way audiences' experiences and beliefs have changed - perhaps both - but the annual crop of family Christmas flicks seem determined to take a huge, smelly dump on both institutions - Christmas and the family.

Seeing a Christmas movie that doesn't make Mom, Dad, and the family seem like a mob of dysfunctional people, and that doesn't portray the holidays as depressing and godless, is now as likely as hearing someone say George W. Bush has been an OK president. Christmas comedies are of the "laughing through pain" variety, and the pain comes from a combination of unhappily married (or, more likely, divorced) parents, incompatible siblings, rocky romantic relationships, disappointment, embarrassment, and restlessness. They show us today's American family in its vast emptiness: a group of people with nothing in common, living spread out across the country and barely able to tolerate each other for a few hours each year. And Christmas is resented because it forces these people to endure those hours whether they would or no.

There have been some exceptions, of course. Most of the upbeat Christmas movies, however, have been about promoting commercialism and the cult of secular legends, such as Rudolph the Reindeer, Jack Frost, and Santa. The classic Peanuts Christmas film stands out because it presents the story of Jesus' birth without irony or melodrama. Surprisingly, Four Christmases includes a depiction of the nativity story - albeit a bizarre one, in which the main characters are forced to play Mary and Joseph in a happy-clappy church service, with humorous results.

But it also depicts the ups and downs of an unmarried couple as they grudgingly visit their parents and families for the holidays - four visits, since the parents on both sides are divorced. That's today's family for you! It's enough to make me want to stay single forever. Because this would be my life, more or less, if I married a girl with divorced parents. Forget it.

The four parents, by the way, are played by Jon Voight, Mary Steenburgen, Sissy Spacek, and Robert Duvall. Talk about cast overkill! Four Oscar-winning veteran stars to play the unrewarding bit-parts of the parents who formed these two self-absorbed, shallow people. Also appearing in the film are character-actor and sometime director Jon Favreau (whose roles have ranged from the fat, mild-mannered nerd in Rudy to his current butch body-builder type), country-western singers Dwight Yoakam and Tim McGraw, and Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth. It would have been interesting to see Yoakam in a larger role; I still shudder to think about the scariness of his role in Panic Room.

In spite of the interesting cast, the movie wasn't so interesting. It seemed to shed its commitment to embarrassing its stars as it moved along, gradually entering serious relationship territory, which frankly isn't funny. And the lead actors simply didn't convince me that they, or their relationship, was anything to take seriously. Vaughn, in particular, seems to have phoned it in. If I had known he wasn't going to try any harder than his last relationship-based comedy or two, I would have bolted for Bolt and had that stiff drink afterward. No worries. I'll know better the next time a Vince Vaughn vehicle plays in town.

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