Brad (Vince Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon) are a loving, committed couple who, as children of divorce nursing deep psychological scars, have absolutely no plans for marriage or children. And every Christmas they head to a tropical island for vacation, and manufacture a cover story to avoid seeing their families. That is, of course, until their flight is cancelled and their cover is blown, and they end up on a marathon tour of each of their respective parents' homes.
A visit with in-laws, or in this case an introduction to a significant other's parents, is one of the hoariest conventions in comedies, so custom-made for embarrassment and discomfort that if it hadn't been beaten to death by the time of Meet the Parents, then Meet the Fockers finished the job. So Four Christmases, which aims not to tweak that convention so much as to quadruple it, is hardly an appetizing proposition. And coming from director Seth Gordon, following up the acclaimed arcade-nerd documentary The King of Kong, it's a disheartening turn toward formulaic multiplex fare.
Fortunately, the variety pack approach of Four Christmases has its benefits. A day with only Brad's gruff redneck father (Robert Duvall) or Kate's mother (Mary Steenburgen), a cougar who hugs Brad for just a little too long, would get old fast. But every 20 minutes, Vaughn and Witherspoon are back in the SUV on the way to another house, while Ben Stiller has to drag out a whole movie getting tortured by Robert De Niro. And ultimately, it's the two leads that rightfully carry the movie, instead of merely providing reaction shots to the dysfunction that surrounds them.
Vaughn, back with another crass Christmas comedy just a year after Fred Claus, plays a slightly more vulnerable and passive-aggressive variation on the disingenuous motor-mouth character on which he's built his career. But it's downright refreshing to see Witherspoon, who's largely neglected her comedic talents since the Legally Blonde movies made her a headliner, in a role that requires a mix of tightly coiled control with a little bit of crazy lurking under the surface, occasionally recalling Election's Tracy Flick.
Still, Vaughn and Witherspoon can only do so much, trudging through a rogue's gallery of one-note characters and predictable setups. Country singers Tim McGraw and Dwight Yoakam take on such pointlessly small roles that you can only assume that most of their scenes will end up in the DVD's deleted scenes. Vaughn's frequent co-star Jon Favreau appears as one of his knucklehead brothers, but instead of trying to recreate their Swingers chemistry, or any chemistry at all, he simply kicks the shit out of Vaughn at every opportunity. And at its worst, Four Christmases can make you feel as beaten down and insulted as its protagonists.