Dir: Seth Gordon. US. 2008. 88 mins
Four rounds of family festivities produce very little merriment for either its protagonists or audiences as holiday season romantic comedy Four Christmases slogs its way through a sub-90 minute running time. The pairing of Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon and the presence of an impressive supporting cast of veteran performers will probably get this Warner-distributed New Line/Spyglass production a sizeable and demographically broad opening weekend audience. After that, though, a couple of years as seasonal video and TV filler seems like the best prospect.
In the US, Warner will get a jump on other holiday season releases by opening the film (with a PG-13 rating) over the long Thanksgiving weekend. The timing, wide release pattern and marquee names should result in a decent debut, even with high profile melodrama Australia as competition.
Openings in most major international markets come between now and the New Year. But with neither star being as much of a draw outside the US, the eventual international take is likely to be relatively meagre.
Appropriately enough it took four screenwriters - Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (Rebound) and the previously unproduced team of Matt R Allen and Caleb Wilson - to shape the story of happily unmarried and childless couple Brad (Vaughn) and Kate (Witherspoon).
Though they usually avoid their families by taking exotic winter vacations, this year Brad and Kate get cornered into visiting all four of their respective parents on Christmas Day. A bruising visit to Brad's father Howard (Robert Duvall) is followed by a few embarrassing hours with Kate's mother Marilyn (Mary Steenburgen) and an exasperating afternoon with Brad's mum Paula (Sissy Spacek). It's during the last stop-off, with Kate's dad Creighton (Jon Voight), that the by-now not-speaking couple begin to see the error of their ways and start making plans for a new life.
Making his narrative feature directing debut, Seth Gordon, who came to attention with last year's acclaimed documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, acquits himself reasonably well. But the script gives him much less to work with than he had in the real-life drama and comedy of his earlier film.
The four-part structure of the story is supposed to gradually reveal Brad and Kate to each other, but it seems just as much an excuse to try out every family Christmas cliche in the book, from randy grandmas and spoiled kids to trouble-causing gifts and games that dissolve in acrimony.
The humour is consistently broad and brutal, favouring basic slapstick and easy targets. Then, in the story's last chapter, the tone shifts abruptly and not very credibly to warm and fuzzy.
Vaughn works hard to inject some life into the proceedings and his moments of apparently improvised comedy produce the few real laughs on offer.
In her first rom-com since 2005's Just Like Heaven, Witherspoon seems as uncomfortable in her role as her character is spending Christmas with the in-laws. And there's a notable lack of chemistry between the two leads in their one-on-one scenes together.
The supporting cast - which also includes Vaughn's regular collaborator Jon Favreau and country music stars Dwight Yoakam and Tim McGraw - is never used to its full potential, though Duvall and Spacek make game attempts.
New Line Cinema
Matt R Allen & Caleb Wilson
Jon Lucas & Scott Moore
Jeffrey L Kimball