From the Nov. 26 Oregonian....
There's one inviolable rule in mainstream holiday comedies about wacky family reunions: The house always wins. You can bend the family unit -- mock it, kick it, make it look stupid -- but you never get to break it.
In the broad strokes, "Four Christmases" hews to that formula. It's pleasantly funny (and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny) from start to finish, even when it's staging broad, easy gags about baby puke and fat kids. But it's better-than-average in the execution and details -- thanks to the chemistry and general intelligence of the talent.
The movie's never funnier than its first 10 minutes, when its lead characters are at their worst. Brad (Vince Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon) are the enemies of everything Hollywood holds dear in the above-mentioned mainstream holiday comedies about wacky family reunions: They're unmarried. They don't want kids. They have an offbeat sex life. They hate Yuletide obligation. And they proudly avoid their mostly horrible, divorced parents. I could have watched a whole movie of this couple gleefully flouting every holiday tradition and getting away with it.
They don't, of course.
Their plan to slip away to Bali on Christmas is foiled, and they spend the day learning each others' dark secrets at several skin-crawly gatherings under several holiday trees -- running afoul of families comprising white-trash bullies (including Robert Duvall and Jon Favreau) and terrifying cougars (including Mary Steenburgen and Sissy Spacek).
What's interesting here is that the actors and director Seth Gordon (the documentarian behind the brilliant "King of Kong") mostly depict Brad and Kate as happy, charming, and in love with each other, rather than overplaying their urban narcissism before punishing them for their sins. Vaughn does his usual motormouthed ad-lib routine, and he's doing it pretty well this time, or at least better than he did it in "Fred Claus." The big lummox fences beautifully with the dainty Witherspoon, who as usual mixes Southern-belle charm with an eye-rolling frostiness she can flip on and off like a light switch. (Given their Mutt-and-Jeff proportions, the cinematographer who managed to fit these two in the same film frame deserves a Purple Heart.)
Vaughn and Witherspoon are clearly having a lot of fun snapping each other's synapses, and their sense of play gives the whole easygoing, formulaic enterprise a welcome jolt.
B; 82 minutes; rated PG-13 for some sexual humor and language.
'Four Christmases' (The Oregonian, Nov. 26, 2008)