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HOW MANY CHRISTMASES?

This is shaping up to be a really short movie review, but that's okay, because this is getting to be an increasingly unrewarding season for movie-goers.

I can't actually remember how many Christmas movies used to get released each year, but it seems like a whole lot.

Of course, all the ones that anybody remembers come from years ago, so this may all be a trick of memory – “Miracle on 34th Street”? 1947. “It's a Wonderful Life”? Earlier – 1946. And the big granddaddy, “A Christmas Carol” – well, there are so many versions I'll give you some leeway, but I like Alastair Sim's 1951 black-and-white version. I also have a soft spot for “A Muppet Christmas Carol,” but I'll watch the Muppets do anything. (I still think “Muppet Treasure Island” is one of the ten best movies ever made.) And “The Polar Express” from 2004 has some lively moments, and some tender ones too.

No doubt you noticed that, a few years back, holiday movies started getting nasty. Not foul, exactly, just unpleasant, and sometimes creepily funny. I think this is because Hollywood, always a hair behind the Zeitgeist, had finally figured out that family Yule celebrations have a way of bringing lots of unpleasant feelings to a head, and that a fair number of people would rather spend Christmas in a Buddhist country.

So here we are, after “Santa Clause” I and II, and “Christmas with the Kranks,” looking at “Four Christmases,” and wondering just why we put up with all these emotional crises every year.

Vince Vaughn, as Brad, and Reese Witherspoon, as Kate, like a French verb tense, are the Perfect Imperfect couple. They've been living together for three years, and spend every Christmas avoiding their families by pretending to work for international charities, while they're actually lolling on sun-stroked beaches.

(Why didn't I think of that 30 years ago? I – and you – ask.)

This year, their flight to Fiji is sabotaged by the fog at the San Francisco airport (and this is how you know it's a fairy tale – if they canceled flights for fog at SFO nobody would ever fly anywhere) and they're trapped by a TV reporter, so the jig is up, and they have to visit all four of their separated parents, so they head north over the Golden Gate Bridge to quiet, wealthy, wine-tasting Marin County.

So what's the big deal?

Oh, you'll recognize all of this: Brad's dad (Robert Duvall) is a redneck blusterer, and Brad's brothers (who live with Dad) are redneck caricatures with perpetually pregnant wives. “We've got beermosas in the kitchen,” drawls one, proving that none of them can actually live in Marin County.

Kate's mom is an oversexed overachiever who's recently become attached to a Pentecostal minister, once again proving that nobody here lives in Marin County.

The only parents that can live there are Brad's Mom (Sissy Spacek), who's sleeping with Brad's best friend from high school, and Kate's dad (Jon Voight), who's really rich and very understanding. These two live in very cool fancy houses and are so Marin County it hurts.

The reason all this works is that every one of us, you, me, and all the horses we rode in on, can remember a Christmas that was way, way worse than the holiday we see here, and that's why we laugh ourselves silly at it, up to the point that Kate and Brad get fed up with each other for some pretty flimsy reasons and head for Splitsville.

That's also why the last part of the movie rings false – when Jon Voight intones “Nothing is more important than family!” and as soon as Kate and Brad decide to get back together and make babies, the whole effort loses its edge and becomes, dreary and laughless, and ho-hum.

Though I must say that Vince Vaughn, as a new father, when faced with a microphone, presents the best possible incoherent mumble: he may very likely have studied George W. Bush, and lately looked at the lame duck's less-than-lucid lucubrations.