"Four Christmases" not dreadful but never as funny as it should be

Four Christmases (2008) 
82 min., rated PG-13.

Bad Christmas movies tend to happen to good people, what with Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis in 2004's "Christmas with the Kranks," Ben Affleck in 2004's "Surviving Christmas," Matthew Broderick and Danny DeVito in 2006's "Deck the Halls," and Vince Vaughn in 2007's "Fred Claus." Yeah, that's a lot of sour egg nog. With "Four Christmases," the phrase of “the more the merrier” doesn't really apply here, as one Christmas would've been more than enough. This latest Yuletide star vehicle isn't dreadful, just mediocre; in fact, the film starts out with some fizz and zip that it's obvious where the committee of writers came in and mucked it up. 

As contrived holiday setups go, this one isn't bad. Brad (Vince Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon) are unconventional protagonists: they have no children and don't intend to have any, and they've been happily unmarried for three years. These two self-involved San Fransisco yuppies aren't much for family, so, as usual, they plan to go away on vacation to Fiji to avoid visiting their four divorced folks. To make them even more unconventional or unlikable characters, Brad and Kate lie, telling their families that they're doing charity work in the third-world country. Once arriving to the airport, all flights are canceled due to foggy weather conditions and, worse, they're interviewed on live TV. Now, Brad and Kate are obligated to pop in to each home of their dysfunctional families for Christmas. Yes, they'll be having four Christmases, and it should be painless, right? 

Directed by Seth Gordon (who made a splash with his 2007 video-game documentary "The King of Kong") and written by, perhaps, three too many credited screenwriters, "Four Christmases" begins with some surprise in its introduction of Brad and Kate, setting them up as a naughty couple role-playing at a bar and sharing a verbal war. Once that's over, the film sprinkles in a handful of tart, amusing moments, which deserve a more subversively cheerless whole. The execution is wildly uneven, as there are too many lowbrow laughs and a lesson on the true meaning of Christmas commercially wired into the gloppily sentimental, seasonally phony ending. Courtesy of Kate's dad Creighton (Jon Voight), we now understand the importance of family. The film is just a lump of coal, director Gordon insisting on predictable, noxiously broad slapstick and making some of the family members irritating caricatures. At his redneck pop Howard's (Robert Duvall) house, Brad is wrestled and clocked repeatedly by his aggressive cage-fighting brothers, played by Tim McGraw and Jon Favreau, which is more conceptually funny than the real thing. He also gets to fall off a roof while installing a satellite dish because idiocy and pain are always good for a laugh. There's also not one but two projectile-vomit baby gags involving Kate. 

The lead stars make a believable, bickering couple, but like their difference in height, Vaughn's mile-a-minute verbal shtick often outmatches Witherspoon. Luckily, there are standout moments and a few acerbic zingers emerging from the tired script. For one, Kate and Brad dress up as Mary and Joseph for a Nativity play to keep Kate's mother (Mary Steenburgen) happy since she's dating the over-the-top pastor (Dwight Yoakam). Then the couple stumbles upon some truth in a heated game of Taboo with Brad's hippie mother Paula (Sissy Spacek), who's robbing the cradle with her son's best friend, and his brother (Favreau) and wife Susan (Katy Mixon). "I don't want to talk ill about your mother on Christmas, but she's a common street whore," might be one of the film's better lines, especially how it's delivered from DuVall. 

Ultimately, there is the vague enjoyment of just watching this stellar cast, especially Mixon and the always-perky Kristin Chenoweth as Kate's baby-crazy sister. Then again, the thought of such a talented line-up being assembled and then wasted is just depressing. Also, there should be a law against squandering Carol Kane, who pokes in as Kate's aunt and says her two lines. "Four Christmases" surely isn't going to be a Christmastime staple to revisit every year, but it shouldn't make you yack like that poor baby, either. It's just that the filmmakers should've really worked on what makes an audience laugh rather than making us go, "Ooh, there's five Oscar winners having fun!" and taking a 180 into Hallmark Channel Movie Land.