Last November, Warner Bros. released Fred Claus, a Christmas-set comedy pairing up lead Vince Vaughn with Rachel Weisz.

This November, New Line released Four Christmases, a Christmas-set comedy pairing up lead Vince Vaughn with Reese Witherspoon.

Mere coincidence, you might ask, despite the fact that New Line is owned by Warner Brothers, not to mention the shared initials of both the titles and the actresses playing the love interests? Perhaps, but happenstance loses my vote when the best one can say for Four Christmases is that it's a marginally better holiday romp than the likes of Fred Claus. Brad (Vince Vaughn) and Kate (Reese Witherspoon) are a proudly unwed and childless couple, prone to public role-playing on dates and skipping town on holidays in order to avoid each of their families. However, fate intervenes when a trademark San Francisco fog grounds all flights and an ambush by TV crew force the two to begrudgingly spend Christmas with each of their divorced parents (Robert Duvall, Mary Steenburgen, Sissy Spacek, and Jon Voight) and extended kin (Jon Favreau and Kristin Chenowith, among others).

The result is pretty much Meet the Parents crossed with Wedding Crashers (and I'm certain that this thing was at least once pitched as Christmas Crashers), hollow humiliation humor writ large and loud. Large and loud is, of course, also Vince Vaughn in a nutshell, and he's as eager with his somewhat tiresome shtick here as anywhere else. His character, initially reluctant to take part in a Nativity play, ends up stealing the show because, heck, V. Vaughn never plays meek (the sudden role vacancies fall among the screenplay's lesser contrivances). However, Witherspoon -- hilarious in Election -- is given the briefest time to play wound tight as she so comfortably can before serving as an all-purpose punching bag and eventual pity party, all whenever the story requires. Vaughn is always shouts and slapstick, always turned up to 11, and to have seen Witherspoon let loose might've been something.

The same goes for Steenburgen, as Kate's born-again mother. After seeing Richard Jenkins let loose opposite her in Step Brothers, one hopes that this might be her chance to go bonkers, but all we're left with is a giddy Christian who's dating the preacher (Dwight Yoakam, again enthusiastic but not quite scary-happy). The hippie mama role comes easy to Sissy Spacek, as does Duvall's overbearing dad routine (The Great Santini, anyone?), and lastly comes Jon Voight as Kate's estranged father, charged as he was in An American Carol with bringing things to an uncharacteristic standstill.

The whole movie, directed by The King of Kong's Seth Gordon, doesn't believe in any such thing as humor without humiliation and serious spots sans sentimentality. Circumstances are only over-the-top when it results in another character's physical pain, and then matters turn from mean-spirited to mushy in no time flat. With four credited writers, one imagines they took a part and passed it on, trying to top each visit with the next and leaving wit out of the equation at every turn. Nowhere does this become more apparent than in the film's funniest scene, in which hot-headed brawler brother Jon Favreau and his pregnant missus blaze through a round of Taboo with an amusing shorthand at their disposal. I wouldn't be surprised if that entire moment was improvised between the two actors, as it briefly lends the proceedings with considerable spontaneity and just the right amount of ridiculous.

The rest makes for an occasionally amusing, mostly shrill series of encounters with an ensemble that only encourages misanthropic ideals, and maybe if Four Christmases had decided to extend itself beyond white trash targets and projectile vomiting, we could've found ourselves talking about a new Christmas classic right now -- or at least a worthwhile comedy, one that stands a bit more firmly in the face of Fred Claus.
categories Reviews, Cinematical