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Friday, November 28, 2008

Four Christmases

I am a living and breathing Scrooge. Bah, Humbug! There is nothing that makes me more miserable every year than the month of December, which actually begins with a post Black Friday frenzy (what a racist and unacceptable term for the day after Thanksgiving) at the end of November and builds to a crescendo of consumer consummation on December 25th, the day Mary took Jesus to His first Wal-Mart.

Christmas was never a popular holiday in my family when I was growing up, mostly because I didn’t have a family. My mom was dead, having died as a matter of fact on Christmas Day itself when I was but a wee clam. Ironically, when my father called her parents to let them know, my beloved grandfather, who quite had those Santa-like rosy cheeks and a belly like a bowl full of jelly, took the news so hard he clutched his chest and keeled over dead on the spot, thus ensuring a double funeral ceremony by the start of Kwanzaa, not that this much mattered since the entire family was whiter than a pack of Yeti in a blizzard.

After that, I was stuck with a single father who had about as much interest in being a parent as I had in a career in proctology (um, that would be zero). Christmas became a taboo subject of conversation at our house and the colored lights and carols of the season were an ugly reminder to me of whom and what I was missing as I made the arduous journey to adulthood.

By the time I was a teenager I barely remembered my mother or grandfather’s faces, and except fo
r a vague sense of them, that they were warm and kind-hearted people who loved me, they had slipped away like morning fog. Unfortunately, their polar opposites remained: my paternal grandfather, who had the cuddliness of a starfish and the charm of a swamp leach, and my father, who was only pleased with himself when he was ruining a day for someone else, loomed large in my adolescence. My father’s mother, my paternal grandmother, recognized a good thing when she saw it, and succumbed to cancer years before I was around. She somehow knew that between facing the horrors of cancer or the prospects of lingering around her husband and son for years to come, there was only one smart choice and she made it, but I didn’t have such a choice, short of gnawing off my own leg and limping away to an orphanage to celebrate the holidays.

Doesn’t that all sound so pathetic? Yet it could have been worse, and it certainly did become just
that once I got married and discovered that the “Norman Rockwell” picture of Christmas I’d always dreamed of and hoped could be mine was nothing like reality. My perfect husband may have had the requisite two parents who lived in a very up-scale Long Island mansion where the fireplaces blazed and their cute dogs curled up sleeping at the hearth, and where the annual holiday experience included the reunion of all four adult “kids” and their spouses and children, followed by a cadre of Sherpas loaded down with enough brightly colored packages to stock the shelves of any empty Macy’s in the tri-state area. What all looked so beautiful on the exterior belied the fact that within fifteen minutes of our arrival I’d witness ‘the big reveal’ that took place annually behind the bough-trimmed doors, and I would come to realize that, sadly, my perfect husband was the genetic mutation in a household full of toxic freaks that made the family from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre look like etiquette experts. The only thing missing from the bile-dripping barrage of insults spewed from my monster-in-law’s pie-hole was the sight of her head doing a one-eighty, which I would have gladly been willing to offer to twist for her, but I was new to the table and didn’t feel it was my place to wring her neck on first meeting. Nowadays I’d consider it a privilege. Christmas became more of a participatory exercise in group therapy than a joyful reunion. Everybody came bearing at least one gift and two unresolved issues to share.

So when I saw the preview for the movie Four Christmases I already knew there could be nothing in it that could compare to my own ruined holidays, but it might provide some comic relief in contrast to my own Christmases. I could write my own version, but it wouldn’t be nearly the farce this film is. Starring Vince Vaughn (Fred Claus) as Vince Vaughn…, well, actually as a guy named Brad who is pretty much acting exactly like Vince Vaughn does in all of his other movies, and Reese Witherspoon (Rendition) as a Reese Witherspoon-y kind of character named Kate. Brad and Kate have been living together for three years in a very chic San Francisco apartment and they spend each Christmas skipping out on their family obligations to go scuba diving in some exotic locale instead. Of course, to do so, they each call their parents with a clever story of their selfless service to the poor in a third world country somewhere, inoculating the poor, clothing the naked, or some such twaddle because it sounds so much better than the truth, and as Brad says “You can’t spell ‘families’ without l-i-e-s.”

Unfortunately, this year, however, the couple’s plans go awry when bad weather leaves them stranded at home and squarely on the local news at the airport where they are seen by those same lied to parents. Busted. But, still, can it be so bad that this presents an opportunity for both Brad and Kate to meet one another’s parents’ for the very first time? After all, what kind of couple is together for three years, living in the same city as their own mothers and fathers, and yet neither party has taken the time to introduce their other half to their own family? Well, that’s really just a hypothetical question. Personally, I could hold out for fifty to sixty years for the sake of my perfect husband’s mental health, but that wouldn’t make for much of a movie, and since this is called
Four Christmases, we need to meet these folks.

In order to squeeze out
Four Christmases and as many laughs as possible, the movie makes sure that both Kate and Brad’s parents are divorced, and is it any wonder? When we first meet Brad’s father, Howard (Robert Duvall; We Own the Night), we learn what a warm and fuzzy patriarch he’s always been. “I don’t want to speak ill of your mother on Christmas Day,” he tells his sons, “but she is a common whore.” I get the feeling Howard is the type of guy who would give his six-year-old grandson a dollar and tell him to go in the kitchen and say “tit-tay” to his mother just so Grandpa could practically wet himself. Almost as cuddly are Brad’s two brothers Denver (Jon Favreau; Iron Man) and Dallas (Tim McGraw; The Kingdom), tag-team “ultimate wrestlers” who think Brad’s reason for being there is for them to practice body-slamming him as often as possible and when he least expects it. Both of them appear to have been hit at least once or twice too often in the head if you ask me.

Next up is a visit to Kate’s mother, Marilyn (Mary Steenburgen; Step Brothers), and an army of aroused aunts who look at Brad like a slice of man-dessert for each of them to sample. While the hairnet harem is drooling over Brad, Marilyn is shocking her daughter with her sudden embrace of fundamental Christianity and her intimate infatuation with Pastor Phil (Dwight Yoakam; Crank), who enlists the young couple in what has to be the funniest Christmas pageant since that seen in Sister Mary Explains It All. Adding extra bounce to this visit is the always perky Kristin Chenoweth (tv’s “Pushing Daisies”) as Kate’s busting-at-the-seams sister who is seriously proud of her mighty mammalia and more than happy to share her ‘lactating ladies’ with Brad and just about everybody else who wants (or doesn’t want) a glimpse.

From here the duo heads to Brad’s mom’s house. Paula (Sissy Spacek; Lake City) is less how Howard characterized her than she is a left-over hippie from the 1960s. Still making “special brownies” and drifting in a hashish haze, she has made Christmas something for Brad to avoid for the past few years, ever since taking Darryl (Patrick Van Horn; Devious Beings), his best friend in college, as her very touchy-feely live-in lover. Worse yet is having the condescending Darryl draping himself all over Mumsy and reminding Brad “I’m not trying to be your father, Brad, but…” That’s the kind of “but” that may jolly well get you kicked in yours.

Finally, before the day is over, the now-tired pair makes a stop at Kate’s Father’s place. Like everyone else in this movie, Creighton (Jon Voight; Pride and Glory) is rolling in dough (doesn’t he have to pay alimony?) but Creighton is different. He is one of those smart “Ward Cleaver” types of Dads, the ones who realize (albeit too late) the mistakes they’ve made and have all the wisdom necessary to pass along these bon mots to his children as needed. If only it was that easy for Jon to deal with his real-life daughter, Angelina Jolie, the way he does with fake kid Kate.

Now, from what I’ve described, this probably
doesn’t sound very chucklicious, but that is because I’ve left out all the funny parts. I don’t want to ruin a bit of the silliness ~ just to give you an overview of the all-star cast and the bare bones of Reese’s pieces and Vaughn’s yawns for two hours. What is really interesting is to watch their scenes together and examine the dynamic between the two. It’s not a very well-hidden secret in Hollywood and beyond that these two despised each other throughout the shoot, and if you’ll notice, only Reese has been out on the promotional tour for this movie. Apparently Vince washed his hands of it and her the second he filmed his last scene. So for an extra kick see if you can notice when the co-stars throw-up in their mouths a bit during their kissing scenes. It’s almost as laughable as envisioning Howard and Paula actually married, but not quite.

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