One of the rules of the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, which basically dictated how all American movies were made until the late 1960s or so, stated, “The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing.”
And that’s pretty much the agenda of “Four Christmases,” a comedy that starts out casting a sardonic eye on marriage and family but winds up being a treacly advertisement for those very things.
Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon star as Brad and Kate, an upscale urban couple who are enjoying themselves and each other too much to jeopardize their relationship by getting married. They also assiduously avoid their divorced parents every holiday season by pretending to be doing charity work in a far-off nation. This year, however, the couple not only finds itself fogged into San Francisco but also caught on live TV at the airport by a local newscaster, which forces them to visit all four of their parents in one day.
Whether by design or not, all the parents are played by Oscar winners; Brad and Kate’s first stop is to see his dad (Robert Duvall), a sexist reprobate and lout. Also present are Brad’s two brothers (Jon Favreau and Tim McGraw), amateur cage fighters who love to practice their moves on their unwilling sibling. Then they’re off to see Kate’s mom (Mary Steenburgen), who forces them to play Mary and Joseph in her mega-church’s Nativity play. Brad’s mother (Sissy Spacek) is a therapist of the clunky-turquoise-jewelry school — whom we can’t imagine ever having been married to the Duvall character — but Brad resents her for now being involved with his childhood best friend.
Throughout the day, Brad and Kate find out all the old secrets they’ve been keeping from one another — Kate used to be fat, Brad’s real name is Orlando — and wonder if they’re really committed to the relationship. And Kate, surrounded by babies all day, begins to question her no-kids-no-way policy.
By the time we get to Kate’s dad (Jon Voight), who actually utters the line, “There’s nothing more important than family,” whatever subversive spark “Four Christmases” ever had has gone out the window, replaced by Hallmark Channel schmaltz.
Not that “Four Christmases” was all that great before making its fatal turn into Sweetness and Light-ville, but the movie at least dared to suggest that there’s more to life than Mom and apple pie. Hollywood can’t ever acknowledge that sort of subversion, however, preferring to leave such scandalous sentiments to the rest of the world. Go see “A Christmas Tale” if you want a holiday movie that acknowledges that your family can mess you up in a big way. “Four Christmases” is content to merely promote conformity and undercut its own tiny glimmer of specialness.