Hell for the Holidays

rexholidays Hell for the HolidaysFour Christmases
Running time 82 minutes
Written by Matt Allen, Caleb Wilson, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore
Directed by Seth Gordon
Starring Vince Vaughn, Reese Witherspoon, Sissy Spacek, Robert Duvall, Mary Steenburgen, Jon Voight

O.K., go ahead and make fun of Christmas. Every year, somebody does. Like the people in Beverly Hills in the verse to Irving Berlin’s legendary song who gave up dreaming of a “White Christmas,” I long ago gave up hoping for another holiday classic in the same league as Miracle on 34th Street, Christmas in Connecticut and It’s a Wonderful Life. Instead of sugarplums, we now get nauseating holiday thorns like Four Christmases, and the only thing that comes down the chimney is a serial killer.

Four Christmases is four nightmares rolled into one, all masquerading as alleged comedies and featuring cameo appearances by a supporting cast of genuine talents whose 401(k)’s must be Wall Street casualties. How else can you explain the presence of Reese Witherspoon, Sissy Spacek, Robert Duvall, Mary Steenburgen and Jon Voight, to name a few. Either the lighting in this horror is dreadful, or they are all red-faced from trashing their integrity for money. Probably both. To say this movie is beneath their dignity is like saying Michael Jackson is an obvious choice for a recurring role on Nip/Tuck.

Brad and Kate (Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon) are a rich San Francisco couple who hate marriage, kids and family reunions. When you meet their families, you instantly understand why every year they mail their presents and head for the airport, destined for some exotic new port in the sun in a Christmas world that never heard of an economic recession and nobody serves turkey. This year their Ray-Bans and bikinis are packed for Burma and Fiji when the Bay Area gets fogged in; their flight is canceled; and a TV reporter corners them for an interview that reveals their dilemma to all of their assorted relatives. Trapped, they gird their loins for a marathon of homecomings with four divorced parents, jealous siblings, savage children, screaming babies and worse. (I haven’t got the stomach to tell you about the masturbating grandmother.) Since the entire movie takes place in one day, these people must all live within 10 minutes of each other. By the time it’s over, Christmas spirit turns rancid and 24 hours seems like 24 days.

First, there’s Brad’s vicious, white trash father, Howard (Robert Duvall), and two sub-mental Neanderthal brothers, Denver and Dallas (Jon Favreau and country singer Tim McGraw), who live in a collapsing tract house and spend their lives hunting and fighting. Brad gets insulted, beaten, knocked unconscious and nearly electrocuted before he falls off the roof, while Kate gags on Christmas “treats” of aerosol-can cheese spread and baloney sandwiches slathered with Miracle Whip. Next stop is Kate’s mother, Marilyn (Mary Steenburgen), a religious nut, and brainless, mean-spirited sister Courtney (Kristen Chenoweth), whose grotesque children vomit all over Kate’s black cocktail dress and steal her pregnancy test. Before their visit ends, Kate and Brad get dragged off to Marilyn’s church pageant and forced to play Mary and Joseph, wrecking the manger before the big finale, a ghastly rock ’n’ roll “Silent Night”.

Christmas number three finds them in the clutches of Brad’s mother, Paula (a criminally wasted Sissy Spacek), an aging hippie whose new lover is a guy Brad’s age who used to be his best friend in high school. Reluctantly, they all play a demented board game that makes no sense. Mercifully, this segment is short. By the time they reach Lake Tahoe (try making that drive in one day) and the beautiful home of Kate’s much-married father (Jon Voight) and his new girlfriend, with ex-wife Marilyn and the rest of Kate’s nutty relatives all joining in for the second time in one day, the idyllic couple is so mortified by the things they’ve discovered about each other, so estranged from arguing and so stressed out after wasting their entire Christmas with four of the most obnoxious families on the planet that Kate is the only one who gets out of the car; Brad drives away, leaving her in the driveway. But this movie isn’t over yet. Forced by the day’s events to reevaluate the importance of family (huh?), Brad and Kate decide it might not be such a bad thing to start one of their own—a decision made, like everything else in the movie, for all the wrong reasons. Kids, reasons Brad, “are little walking tax shelters—you can write a lot of things off.”

Although it took four writers to come up with this drivel, Four Christmases has the cohesion of an impromptu game played on a boring road trip in which each passenger in the car takes turns adding a scene. “Remember,” says the driver, “to drag it out until we get to the next gas station.” Reese Witherspoon is adorable as ever. Vince Vaughn has the charisma of a dead armadillo. Nobody gets much help from hack director Seth Gordon (King of Kong). It’s vulgar, embarrassing and (this is the good part) only about 80 minutes long, but the acid reflux is guaranteed to last through New Year’s Eve.

rreed@observer.com